Friday, May 26, 2006

Poetry "needs not rhime"

Andrew Marvell (1621-1678)
(Borrowed from Wikipedia)

Andrew Marvell, prefacing Milton's epic Paradise Lost with his own lyric "On Paradise Lost," assures Milton that:

Thy Verse created like thy Theme sublime,
In Number, Weight, and Measure, needs not Rhime.

Note that in stating this, Marvel kept his own lines rhymed -- perhaps the more to persuade critics of unrhymed verse.

Apparently, Milton's unrhymed verse was a sore point for many, for Milton feels compelled to defend himself. In the "Front Matter" to the 1674 edition of Paradise Lost, Milton, sensitive to criticism that his 1667 edition didn't rhyme, presents in "The Verse" his reasons for deciding not to use rhyme:

The Measure is English Heroic Verse without Rime, as that of Homer in Greek, and Virgil in Latin; Rhime being no necessary Adjunct or true Ornament of Poem or good Verse, in longer Works especially, but the Invention of a barbarous Age, to set off wretched matter and lame Meeter; grac't indeed since by the use of some famous modern Poets, carried away by Custom, but much to thir own vexation, hindrance, and constraint to express many things otherwise, and for the most part worse then else they would have exprest them. Not without cause therefore some both Italian, and Spanish Poets of prime note have rejected Rhime both in longer and shorter Works, as have also long since our best English Tragedies, as a thing of itself, to all judicious ears, triveal, and of no true musical delight; which consists onely in apt Numbers, fit quantity of Syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one Verse into another, not in the jingling sound of like endings, a fault avoyded by the learned Ancients both in Poetry and all good Oratory. This neglect then of Rhime so little is to be taken for a defect, though it may seem so perhaps to vulgar Readers, that it rather is to be esteem'd an example set, the first in English, of ancient liberty recover'd to heroic Poem from the troublesom and modern bondage of Rimeing.
Note that Milton defends his poem's lack of rhyme as an "ancient liberty recover'd" from the "modern bondage of Rimeing."

I wouldn't go so far with Milton as to state that rhyme offers "no true musical delight," for I happen to like rhyme and think that it does offer "true musical delight." But what's he talking about when he refers to restoring ancient poetic liberty by breaking the modern chains of rhyme? Although he cites Homer and Virgil, he might also be thinking of the old poetic tradition in English. Old English poetry didn't use rhyme.

Let's look at an example.

Within its great labyrinth of Old English poetry, Georgetown University provides an online text of the 7th-century Anglo-Saxon poem Caedmon's Hymn, using the West Saxon Version (to which I've added right slashes to signal the caesura, or pause, separating the half-lines of each line):

Nu sculon herigean / heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte / and his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder, / swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten, / or onstealde.
He ærest sceop / eorðan bearnum
heofon to hrofe, / halig scyppend;
þa middangeard / moncynnes weard,
ece drihten, / æfter teode
firum foldan, / frea ælmihtig.

Even those who can't read Old English can see that this text doesn't use rhyme. It does, however, use sound in special ways, especially alliteration -- the repetition of an initial sound. Take line two, for example: "meotodes meahte / and his modgeþanc." The sound represented by the letter "m" occurs thrice: "meotodes," "meahte," and "modgeþanc." Other lines do similar things with initial sounds.

For those of you without Old English training but who are interested in the meaning, here's the text with translation provided, from pages 24-25 of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Seventh Edition, Volume One (New York / London: Norton, 2000), which also capitalizes proper nouns and italicizes the alliterating sounds:

Nu sculon herigean / heofonrices Weard,
Now we must praise / heaven-kingdom's Guardian

Meotodes meahte / and his modgeþanc,
the Measurer's might / and his mind-plans,

weorc Wuldor-Fæder, / swa he wundra gehwæs,
the work of the Glory-Father, / when he of wonders of every one,

ece Drihten, / or onstealde.
eternal Lord, / the beginning established.

He ærest sceop / eorðan bearnum
He first created / for men's sons

heofon to hrofe, / halig Scyppend;
heaven as a roof, / holy Creator;

þa middangeard / moncynnes Weard,
then middle-earth / mankind's Guardian,

ece Drihten, / æfter teode
eternal Lord, / afterwards made --

firum foldan, / Frea ælmihtig.
for men earth, / Master almighty.
For the Anglo-Saxons, poetry didn't rhyme. Rhyme in English poetry only became significant after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

The Old English poetic style didn't die out, however. It continued, albeit out of favor, and resurfaced in the Middle English poems of the so-called "Alliterative Revival." Interestingly, the finest poet of this 'revival,' the anonymous "Gawain Poet," used both alliteration and rhyme in his greatest work, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, but not as we might expect, for he composes each stanza by using alliteration in the first lines (which vary in number from as few as 10 to as many as 30 or more) and only introducing rhyme in the last five lines.

Here's an online example from the Gawain text provided by the Electronic Text Center of University of Virginia Library, using Part 1, Stanza 2:

Ande quen þis Bretayn watz bigged bi þis burn rych,
Bolde bredden þerinne, baret þat lofden,
In mony turned tyme tene þat wro3ten.
Mo ferlyes on þis folde han fallen here oft
Þen in any oþer þat I wot, syn þat ilk tyme.
Bot of alle þat here bult, of Bretaygne kynges,
Ay watz Arthur þe hendest, as I haf herde telle.
Forþi an aunter in erde I attle to schawe,
Þat a selly in si3t summe men hit holden,
And an outtrage awenture of Arthurez wonderez.
If 3e wyl lysten þis laye bot on littel quile,
I schal telle hit as-tit, as I in toun herde,
with tonge,
As hit is stad and stoken
In stori stif and stronge,
With lel letteres loken,
In londe so hatz ben longe.

Note the alliteration in the first quoted line: "Bretayn," "bigged," "bi," and "burn." Each succeeding line has other alliterative examples until we reach the final five lines, which use both alliteration and rhyme, the latter being "tonge"-"stronge"-"longe" and "stoken"-"loken."

For those who can't make out the Middle English, here -- again from my Norton Anthology, Volume Seven -- is Marie Borroff's translation, also available online through Pace University's CSIS page for Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (cf. Beowulf to Lear):

And since this Britain was built by this baron great,
Bold boys bred there, in broils delighting,
That did in their day many a deed most dire.
More marvels have happened in this merry land
Than in any other I know, since that olden time,
But of those that here built, of British kings,
King Arthur was counted most courteous of all,
Wherefore an adventure I aim to unfold,
That a marvel of might some men think it,
And one unmatched among Arthur's wonders.
If you will listen to my lay but a little while,
As I heard it in hall, I shall hasten to tell
As it was fashioned featly
In tale of derring-do,
And linked in measures meetly
By letters tried and true.

Borroff has striven to retain both the alliteration and rhyme, but the former has far more weight for the "Alliterative Revival."

Why, then, did Milton complain at the restrictive bonds of rhyme and feel the need to break free? Probably because of that rhyme-schemer Chaucer, who in the centuries following his publication of The Canterbury Tales became "canonized as the father of English poetry" ("Introduction," Norton Anthology of English Literature, Seventh Edition, Volume 1 (2000), page 11). One need only recall that Edmund Spenser paid homage to Chaucer's work as a "well of English undefiled" (Norton Anthology, Vol. 1, page 614) and that Milton, for his part, paid homage to Spenser as "a better teacher than Scotus or Aquinas" (Norton Anthology, Vol. 1, page 616).

I wonder if this has anything to do with Michael Drout's meme-based views on how tradition works...

Anyway, since I've run on about long enough for today and have previously posted several entries on Chaucer anyway, I'll stop here and briefly reaffirm, with Milton and with Marvell, that poetry "needs not rhime."


At 8:46 AM, Blogger Saur♥Kraut said...

Beautiful post. Thank you. I actually have won some major awards for my poetry. However, poetry is a lost art form that is appreciated by very few people. I have been able to use it to help write some songs for a band that's very popular overseas, but isn't really known here... ;o)

At 9:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Saur, congratulations on the awards. You've done better than I.

I'm curious about that overseas band, but I guess that your stating its name would give away your secret identity.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:55 AM, Blogger Saur♥Kraut said...

;o) Yeah. I'll say this much: it's a Caribbean/reggae/soca band.

At 6:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, Jeffery. It might be worth noting that the few excurses in Anglo-Saxon rhyming poetry are aesthetic train wrecks. Some languages just don't lend themselves to end rhyme; Old English and Latin are two, and Milton was conscientiously imitating Virgil's Aenead (not to mention Virgil's literary career) in his composition of Paradise Lost.

Ed Tyler

At 7:09 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for visiting, Ed. I didn't know that you checked my blog.

Anyway, English is fortunate as a language capable of both rhyming and nonrhyming poetry, for which we can thank the Normans, I suppose.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 10:07 PM, Blogger A.H. said...

An interesting post. I live near Marvell's part of the world. Of course, Marvell was a supreme writer of irony, as his dedication to Milton shows. Milton joked with Dryden about tagging (his verses and turning blank verse into rhymed couplets for the stage). Marvell picks up the pun. Marvell tags his own decicatory verse (with foppish Catholic ribbons of rhyme) to expose those poets who also gain fame by tagging their verses on to to much greater works... This "ancient liberty" is a strange phrase: probably it harks back to the NeopPlatonist's belief in ancient Orphic texts and the Mysteries and those poets who lived in the Golden Age
which was truly free and "liberal".
That is a major theme of Il Penseroso (Milton was happy to rhyme there!) which investigates the hermetical, priestly function of poetry and the Mercurial Monarch. Paradise Lost, with its sacral poetics descends from Milton's belief in "ancient liberty" and Orphic thought...
You live in a wonderfully surreal word...a posting on Milton, the Lady, and ladybugs would round the present off. You writings are wonderfully hermetical.

At 3:59 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Eshuneutics, thanks for your interesting remarks, from which I learned about "tagging." I really do learn something new every day.

Because I was focused on the lack of rhyme in Old English poetry, I hadn't thought about "ancient liberty" as referring to the Greek poetic tradition, but I'll keep it in mind from now on. Doubtless, Milton would be making a number of allusions by such an expression.

Ah, my surreal world ... is a matter of me discovering who I am. The internet is a place wonderful, in the old sense of that word: miraculous.

Thanks again for visiting.

Jeffery Hodges

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