Main PageProsody Guide

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It is a widespread opinion that Fermi believed atomic power would improve the state of humanity rather than destroy part of it. Likewise the Present Author, who has written this guide for his own amusement and his Readers', sincerely hopes it will never be employed as a means of oppressing students. There are, however, reasons to doubt this: copies of an incomplete version are already being used at the University of Arkansas and a suspiciously high number of educational institutions visit the website where it is found each day.
If it were not so, this chapter would be useless: having a declaration of intents at the beginning is, in the Present Author's opinion, reason enough not to have a conclusion: either the writer has given what he has promised, and therefore you can complacently position the book on its shelf (or, in this case, turn off the computer), or he hasn't, and you shouldn't pander to his fickleness by reading any further.
But students don't have this choice: they have to read on, they crave for a summary, so Ile fit them, too. To summarise, a main point should emerge from this treatise: that very little in English poetry is indigenous. Its poetic forms are, with very few exceptions, first sifted through French and then imported; rhyme itself is a foreign device, and syllabic versification is clearly a Romance heritage.
That said, it is also rather evident that English poets have always had a hard time following whatever form they chose, and the most sophisticated means of expression employed in other languages, such as the rondeau and the so-called Petrarchan sonnet are only sporadic occurrences in this language. There is, in fact, somewhat of a friction between the nature of English and the Continental origin of its prosody, and this fact certainly abets the many that protest against its 'constrictions'. But what parts English from Romance languages, or from Old Norse, in phonetic terms? A question like this could, of course, be answered in exact terms only by a linguist, but some features stand out even for the layman to see. The most evident is in the comparative abundance of phonemes: in English there are 22 vowel sounds (assuming the Reader speaks the modern version of the King's English, since the number varies according to the dialect considered), while in Provençal, the language in which the first rhymes were written, there are only 8 and 7 in Italian. French has 17, and it is interesting to notice that France is the homeland of the lipogram, a device which reduces them to a number closer to the southern Neolatin tongues.
On the other hand, most Western European languages seem to have similar numbers of consonants; this would suggest that poetry based on assonance can be transferred only with great difficulty, while poetry relying on consonance or alliteration has a wider range of application: as a matter of fact, English has systematically rejected one of the most common Spanish writing styles, that based on assonance, while it once adopted, and is now rediscovering, alliterative poetry.
Another characteristic of the English language is the fact that it is stress-timed, while most, if not all, romance languages are syllable-timed. This is quite a recent discovery, of which Chaucer, regretfully, couldn't have been properly aware. Simply put, it means that the time one takes to read an Italian verse depends roughly on the number of syllables therein contained, while for an English verse it depends on how many of them are stressed. This is no slight difference: poetry from the early Middle Ages was sung to music (usually readapted Gregorian chants), so that the underlying melody controlled its flow in time very strictly. In the transition towards 'spoken' poems in Southern France, writing verses with a set number of syllables also meant giving them the same duration. In order to obtain the same effect in English and, presumably, in Old Norse, one has to use a fixed number of stresses, which is exactly the case in the Nordic fornyrðislag adopted by many Old and Middle English writers. In this light, the key to alliterative poetry becomes the fixed number of stresses rather than the alliterations, and therefore one can see how its contemporary readers could accept the 'sloppy' style of the Exeter riddle in chapter 6. Furthermore, one can also see why soon after the introduction of syllabic verses in England, came the invention and the immediate popularity of the iambic pentameter: it was an attempt at re-establishing the time measure of the line, as were all uses of 'feet'.
It was only much later (in the 18th century) that English verse was re-interpreted in terms of Greek and Latin metres, with results that are sometimes interesting, sometimes pathetic (iambic verses, for example, the basis of elegiac poetry in England are used almost only in farce in Latin).
Other similarities don't have the same rigorous scientific base, but can be drawn from examples; one could wonder, for instance, what the English equivalent of a triolet is. We have seen that this form is mostly used in France for humorous poetry, but the few English examples known seem to safely deny this could be the case in English; actually, whoever tries writing a triolet in this language is more than likely to be in the bleakest of moods. But let us take this quite typical triolet by Banville ('Opinion sur Henri de La Madelène', from the 'Odes funambulesques'):

J'adore assez le grand Lama,
Mais j'aime mieux La Madelène.
Avec sa robe qu'on lama
J'adore assez le grand Lama.

Mais La Madelène en l'âme a
Bien mieux que ce damas de laine.
J'adore assez le grand Lama,
Mais j'aime mieux La Madelène.

And let's compare it, rather than with an English triolet, with this 1924 limerick by the anonymous 'Princeton Tiger':

There once was a man from Nantucket,
Who kept all of his cash in a bucket,
But his daughter, named Nan,
Ran away with a man,
And as for the bucket, Nantucket.

In spite of Banville's greater skill in handling the task, there is a clear analogy between the techniques employed: where the triolet uses the paragram, 'damas de laine' to make 'La madelène' stand out more, the limerick has the resonance 'Nan' to highlight 'Nantucket'; both use homophony, one implicitly in 'Nantucket'/'Nan took it' (faulty as it may be), the other in 'Lama'/'l'âme a'. Furthermore (and this is generally true), there are five different lines in a triolet, as in a limerick, and they are split in two rhyme groups, one of two and one of three elements, as in a limerick. The difference is in the fact that a triolet is 'stiffened' formally by the repeated lines, while a limerick is made 'rigid' by the forced stress pattern. Both forms are generally made of short, rapid lines. Confronted by all this evidence, one might well assume that the two forms are the cross-language equivalent of each other, and surmise that they would probably be put to the same use in their respective traditions. As with syllabic and alliterative verse, comparing how prosody is used in different languages enables us to draw comparisons between apparently unrelated devices. It should be clear from the above, and from reading the various examples in the rest of this treatise, that prosody cannot be simply transferred from one language to another, and especially not from a Romance one to a Germanic one: in this light, Chaucer's attempt at borrowing all of French prosody all at once, however supported by his own outstanding poetic skill, should be deemed imprudent, at best. Likewise, the many that believe the theory according to which English prosody descends directly from ancient Greek succeed in nothing but demonstrating that men descend from a tribe of peculiarly gullible baboons.
One very last example illustrates quite well the entire concept, and it is that of the sonnet: this canker of all poetry, according to some, evolved from a form called ghazal, which is still widely practised in Central Asia.
When the Arabs invaded Persia in 650 AD, they introduced thereto a form called quasida, which the Persians customised into the ghazal (an adaptation to their tongue, according to the principles of this very book). When the Arabs invaded Sicily as well, in 827 AD, their culture was permeated with Persian and they brought this new and improved version, the ghazal, there. When, eventually, a bored Norman emperor in the 1230's made it so that one of the first poetic schools of Europe was started in the island, sonnets were one of the most commonly adopted forms there, and they were almost identical to those that would soon invade all Europe.
This theory on the origin of the sonnet is not the only one (another one regards it as an atrophic involution of the Provençal song), but it is certainly the most suggestive: 'ghazal' means something like 'talking to women', which hints its purpose is the same as the first sonnets, whose aim was almost invariably getting into someone's pants. But this is basically the only thing the two metres have in common: the ghazal is an open form strongly segmented into couplets; the first two lines and each other one must end with the same word, while internal rhyme connects the first two lines with each other and with the second line of each couplet. The quasida, from which everything started, is even more different, being a type of extremely long poem with a single rhyme.
This shows again how successful adaptation to a new language can dramatically change the characteristics of a prosodic application in order to preserve its effect or its aim. We can even imagine some of the final stages of this transformation: the careful choice of the 14-line version of the ghazal, the removal of the end-word from each line, which is almost impossible to apply in Italian, and the subsequent creation of an (unattested) form with a rhyme scheme AA BA CA DA EA FA GA, its slow transformation into the typical Sicilian pattern AB AB AB AB CD CD CD and all the slow, patient filing of it into what we know today.
Recent history shows instead how simple transplantation doesn't work at all: as a consequence of the Empire and of those ethnic affectation that characterise modern poetry, several British, and even Asian, poets have tried writing original ghazals in English. It has never worked.
This does not, of course, intend to be a eulogy of chauvinism: any literary tradition that finds itself isolated from the rest of the world falls into misery and withers in no time at all: the contempt of modern academies towards anything extra-national is one of the causes of the decadence of arts in the contemporary age. Even thinking that current prosody is 'already good enough' is preposterous: languages change continuously, and prosody should follow: as an example, the disappearance of feminine endings in French obviously carries with itself the loss of the rondeau redoublé and of a handful of other forms. On the other side, the sextain in Europe and the ghazal in Asia have been left unvaried for many centuries and are still valid forms of expression. The Reader should be aware that poetry, like every form of art, requires patience, experimentation and sensitivity in the development of its techniques; assuming otherwise means being an accomplice in the only crime no one care to seek justice for: its slow murder.

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