WRITING THE PASTORAL

writing the pastoral poemObjective

1. To write a pastoral in the manner of Shelley or Swinburne.

Overview

The New Formalists have tried to resurrect the traditional forms, but most of their work is in the iambic meter, quiet and undemanding. Can we write something with forward impetuosity and singing quality of Shelley in his Ode to The West Wind: {1}

Ode to the West Wind

O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn's being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing,

Yellow, and black, and pale, and hectic red,
Pestilence-stricken multitudes: O thou,
Who chariotest to their dark wintry bed

From Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley: Prometheus Unbound. 1820

Or Swinburne's Chorus in Atalanta in Calydon? {2}

Atalanta in Calydon

For winter's rains and ruins are over,
And all the season of snows and sins;
The days dividing lover and lover,
The light that loses, the night that wins;
And time remembered is grief forgotten,
And frosts are slain and flowers begotten,
And in green underwood and cover
Blossom by blossom the spring begins.

The full streams feed on flower of rushes,
Ripe grasses trammel a travelling foot,
The faint fresh flame of the young year flushes
From leaf to flower and flower to fruit;
And fruit and leaf are as gold and fire,
And the oat is heard above the lyre,
And the hoofèd heel of a satyr crushes
The chestnut-husk at the chestnut root.

From Atalanta in Calydon: Chorus by Algernon Charles Swinburne: 1865.

Starting: First Draft

Both are so far out of fashion, beneath contempt as models for contemporary work, that we shall probably have the field to ourselves. To avoid charges of pastiche, however, let's use an anapaestic metre, employ pararhyme, and pick up the concluding pararhyme of each stanza in the succeeding stanza.

First we have to get some tune into our heads. The poem started with these lines:

Pretend to yourself - why don't you? — I shan't be long,
What with the sun up, the air soft, and the leaves warm.

From these jottings we build a first draft:

I'm to be oblivious of these matters, a
Then? Walk with you, smiling, take your arm? b
The future is re-rented, sold on; it is not the same. b
What we hoped for or had, like the headlong waters, a
                Empty to momentum, and that is gone. c

Yes, the trees and the hill and every chit of stone c
That rang through that season are now wholly silent. d
As the torrents of Spring we yearn for attainment — d
For the yielding, the belonging, the outward turned in: c
                But even the passions soon pass away. e

Say what you want to, exactly: why should I care? e
Enough were the words once to clasp the heart. f
But now I am part of all the inanimate f
Small and the suffering. Tell me: does the hurtling year e
                Nest on the branch where the new day sang? g

Pretend to yourself — why don't you? — that I shan't be long g
What with the sun up, the air soft, and the leaves warm. h
There is no one to hear you. It will do no harm h
To hold me awhile as though summers bring g
                Tangible wonderment only once. i

Why then indignant, meandering into old regrets, i
Playing the martyr? We have done our stint. j
The past is rewritten, settled, the little that went j
On from us soaring from the scented sheets i
                Is burned out and sintered, the first child spilled. k

Getting the First Stanza Right

Opening stanzas are notoriously difficult. Some attempts:

1. If faded and tangled are our few letters
And further than ever is that purblind dream,
The paths in the sunlight are not now the same.
For ours was a falling into headlong waters,
A bewitchment further than the earth again.

2. Is mine the firmament of our few letters,
What we wake with from a passing dream?
If we walk in the sunlight it is not the same:
Ours was a falling into headlong waters,
A further than darkness or the earth again.

3. What can I tell you but that absence fetters
Our days together as a purblind dream?
If you hear me singing, I am not the same.
Ours was a falling into headlong waters,
A hurtling to daylight and drowning again.

4. What is forgotten is not the letters,
Or the fading out of a childhood dream.
We wake in a sunlight that is not the same.
Headlong was our falling into those deep waters,
And further than its darkness the earth again.

5. Is this how you'd want me, as in our letters,
Laughing but only some purblind dream?
The paths in the sunshine are not the same.
Ours was a falling into headlong waters
And further than darkness the earth again.

6. Would you retain me in our few letters,
Reduce me, laughing, to some purblind dream?
The paths in the sunlight are not the same.
For ours was a falling into headlong waters,
A bewitchment further than the earth again.

Analysis

Taking the versions in turn:

1. An interesting last line, suggesting that the bewitchment lasted beyond the affair, that the earth appeared different as a result of the experience. But If faded and tangled are our few letters is itself a tousled line, and the not now checks the rhythm in The paths in the sunlight are not now the same.

2. Darkness as an extraordinarily 'dazzle' in A further than darkness or the earth again, though it's hard to know why. Is mine the firmament of our few letters, is grandiose, however, and doesn't sit well with What we wake with from a passing dream?

3. In what sense can absence fetter in What can I tell you but that absence fetters / Our days together as a purblind dream? and what does the couplet mean? If you hear me singing, I am not the same is a beautiful line, however, and worth carrying forward.

4. Rather banal is What is forgotten is not the letters, / Or the fading out of a childhood dream, and the following line has an unpleasant hardness to it. Headlong was our falling into those deep waters is direct but invites such questions as: did we dive in, or were we pushed?

5. The stanza is beginning to shape up, but the rhythm of the first line is uncertain, and there seems something 'horsey' about the second.

6. Probably the best: the rhythm is reigned in over the first line and flows unchecked in the second, setting a pattern for the stanza and the poem as a whole.

Wessex: Second Draft

Adopting version 6, and polishing, we get:

Would you retain me in our few letters,
Reduce me, laughing, to some purblind dream?
The paths in the sunlight are not the same.
For ours was a falling into headlong waters,
A bewitchment further than the earth again.

Why reiterate how every chit of stone
Brimmed with a music that now is silent?
In the torrents of spring we yearn for attainment —
For the yielding, the belonging, the outward turned in:
How fast that epiphany is put away.

Say what you want to, exactly: I shall not care.
Enough were the words once to clothe the heart.
But now I am part of all the inanimate
Small and the suffering. Tell me: does the circling year
Return to the branch where our own bird sang?

Pretend to yourself — why don't you? — I shan't be long,
What with the sun up, the air soft, and the leaves warm.
There is no one to hear you. It will do no harm
To hold me awhile as though summers bring
Tangible wonderment only once.

Why the incessant indulging of old regrets,
Playing the martyr? We have done our stint.
The fields have reseeded; the little that went
On from us soaring to a famed romance
Is burned out and sintered, the first child spilled.

Readers will have to make up their own minds on the completed poem, a long one, which is given here. Modernists will hate the piece, but it has an emotive power that their work commonly lacks.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

Notes and References

1. Ode to the West Wind. Percy Bysshe Shelley. Poem Hunter. http://www.poemhunter.com.
2. Atalanta in Calydon: A Tragedy by Algernon Charles Swinburne. Poem Hunter. http://www.poemhunter.com.

 

The final poem is published in free pdf form by Ocaso Press.

 

 

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