RHYTHMIC FREE VERSE: LONGER LINES

writing rhythmic free verseIntroduction

Can the limitations of strict verse be overcome by free verse forms? Hexameters, for example, are difficult to handle, and heptameters are apt to break into two lines of four and three stresses each, the so-called ballad metre.

Here we look at an experiment in rhythmic free verse where the seven-stress lines, though not end-stopped, do seem to posses a unity that their formal equivalents would not.

Lowndes

The poem is a long one, given in entirety here. We look at the first three stanzas:

A seminaried, formal garden towards the end of June:
The lawns were steeped in sunlight, the trees as great drifts across.
Intense, the evening shadows smell pungently of earth,
And if the summer days stretched lazily through the grass,
Night was in the rhododendrons. A long way out of London
It seemed to the inhabitants, late down the previous evening,
Reading, saying little, till Gavin brought them from the station.

Next day, sat out on lawns now deck-chaired by the lake
Which, willow-fringed, curved backwards to the east side of the house
The two of them were sitting — women, mid to later twenties:
Languid, animated. Gavin out on business, Hyslop
Followed his instructions and a lunch of sorts was made. Later
There was tea in the pergola. The chic denouements of the city
Dwindled into chatter as the heartache settled out.

'You thought it would be Peter. I did too. Peter was
The sweetest, kindest, most satisfactory man I'd ever
Met, or ever hope to, probably. But you know me.'

The half-drawn summer dress gives colour to her skin, flares
To a lustre of its own. She wraps it closer. 'I took
A gamble. I don't know.' The clouds sail on regardless, urgent
But far away. The wind freshens. Rain is coming soon.

Now the stressed words, the caesurae as || when strong and | when weak, and the stress groupings as 2, 2, 3 etc:

A seminaried | formal garden || towards the end of June 2 2 3
The lawns were steeped in sunlight || the trees | as great drifts across 3 1 3
Intense | the evening shadows | smell | pungently of earth 1 2 1 3
And if the summer days | stretched | lazily | through the grass 3 1 2 2
Night | was in the rhododendrons || A long way out of London 1 3 3
It seemed to thè inhabitants || late down the previous evening 4 3
Reading | saying little || till Gavin brought them from the station. 1 2 4

Next day | sat out on lawns | now deck-chaired by the lake 1 1 1 4
Which willow-fringed | curved backwards | to the east side of the house 2 1 4
The two of them were sitting || women | mid to later twenties 3 1 3
Languid animated || Gavin out on business | Hyslop 3 3 1
Followed his instructions | and a lunch of sorts was made | Later 3 3 1
There was tea | in the pergola || The chic denouements of the city 1 2 4
Dwindled into chatter | as the heartache settled out. 3 4

You thought it would be Peter || I did too | Peter was 3 2 2
The sweetest, kindest || most | satisfactory man | I'd ever 2 1 3 1
Met or ever hope to | probably | But you know me. 3 2 2
The half-drawn summer dress | gives colour to her skin | flares 3 3 1
Tò a lustre òf its own || She wraps it closer || I took 4 2 1
A gamble. I don't know. || The clouds sail on regardless | urgent 3 3 1
But far away || The wind | freshens || Rain is coming soon 2 1 1 3

Firstly, have we got this right? The piece was written many years ago 'by ear', i.e. with no thought of analysis or the controversies that might emerge. Many prosodists deny, for example, that the molossus exists. {1} Listen careful, they say, and you will sense that the middle stress is not so pronounced: days strètched lazily. True, but stretched carries more stress than if or lazily.

And should we place a weak caesura between wind and freshens? A more conventional analysis would be:

But fár awáy | The wìnd fréshens | Ráin is cóming sóon. 2 2 3

Much could be questioned, and finessed here, but what would survive is the variety of phrasing. The only 4 3 line:

It seemed to thè inhabitants || late down the previous evening 4 3

has the ictus falling on the weak the, making it essentially an hexameter. The very regular:

Dwindled into chatter | as the heartache settled out.

is a 3 4 line, where the caesura is so slight as to be nonexistent.

This is not syllabic verse, and the lines are not Alexandrines, but we are somewhat in the area of French prosody, where to a central caesura are added additional pauses in the two segments of the line — for variety, for expressive power. This piece is not particularly expressive, but rather measured and slow-moving: not what we'd want to use for everyday purposes. But the free verse heptameter does hold together in the way that these immensely accomplished lines perhaps do not:

Rudyard Kipling's M'Andrew's Hymn: {2}

Lord, Thou hast made this world below the shadow of a dream,
An', taught by time, I tak' it so — exceptin' always Steam.
From coupler-flange to spindle-guide I see Thy Hand, O God —
Predestination in the stride o' yon connectin'-rod.
John Calvin might ha' forged the same — enorrmous, certain, slow —
Ay, wrought it in the furnace-flame — my "Institutio".
I cannot get my sleep to-night; old bones are hard to please;
I'll stand the middle watch up here — alone wi' God an' these
My engines, after ninety days o' race an' rack an' strain
Through all the seas of all Thy world, slam-bangin' home again.

Georg Chapman's translation of the Iliad, in contrast, goes the other way: only the rhymes mark the line ends: {3}

This said, he reach'd to take his son; who, of his arms afraid,
And then the horse-hair plume, with which he was so overlaid,
Nodded so horribly, he cling'd back to his nurse, and cried.
Laughter affected his great sire, who doff'd, and laid aside
His fearful helm, that on the earth cast round about it light;
Then took and kiss'd his loving son, and (balancing his weight
In dancing him) those loving vows to living Jove he us'd,
And all the other bench of Gods: "O you that have infus'd
Soul to this infant, now set down this blessing on his star:
Let his renown be clear as mine; equal his strength in war;
And make his reign so strong in Troy, that years to come may yield
His facts this fame, when, rich in spoils, he leaves the conquer'd field
Sown with his slaughters: 'These high deeds exceed his father's worth.'
And let this echo'd praise supply the comforts to come forth
Of his kind mother with my life."

The free verse heptameter creates its own effects, beautiful in their way, though the reader will have to judge by reading the whole poem, attending to the later stanzas with their complex but generally falling cadences.

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

 

References

1. E.g. Lewis Turco in his The Book of Forms (Univ. Press of New England, 2000).
2. M'Andrew's Hymn. Rudyard Kipling. Poem Hunter. http://www.poemhunter.com.
3. The Sixth Book Of Homer's Iliad: lines 504-18. George Chapman. http://eir.library.utoronto.ca/rpo/display/poem454.html NNA.

 

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