Old English

Note: This is the first in a bunch of essays I plan on a hundred or so of my favorite English poems, dating from the Middle Ages to the present.  Most of the poems will be formal–that is, they will have rhythm and, on occasion, rhyme.  It’s my conviction that contemporary poetry often excludes potential readers in its insistence on doing away with the two things most people like most about poetry:  music and story.  (I write as much free verse as formal, by the way.)

Much has been made of the modernist “revolution” so ballyhooed by Ezra Pound, in which he said that doing away with pentameter was “the first heave.”  But that revolution is over a hundred years old now–pretty long in the tooth for a revolution, if you ask me–and all it has done is drive away most people who are not poets or wannabe poets.

The tenets of that “revolution” have become dogma, it seems to me, and are therefore useless.  In one essay, I have asked whether “organic form” is an oxymoron or a redundancy.  One should be able to tell, shouldn’t one?  I don’t know of anything organic which doesn’t display form.  For that matter, I don’t know of anything that doesn’t display form.

Of course, the form I’m talking about might be the wrong one.  You’ll just have to take your chances.

The rap has been that since we live in new new times, we have to have new, new language.  Dante wrote in the language of the people, we are told.  Not true, really.  Dante adapted the old forms to new language.  What he wrote wasn’t so much “in the language of the people”–no poet writes in “the language of the people”–as in language that the people could follow.

The practice of free verse has so dominated the realm of “official” poetry for the last several decades that few people are aware that we have had, in the last 200 years or so, the greatest flowering of truly fine formal poetry in the history of the language.  Form has undergone a renaissance, but few are aware of it.  We have heard of Whitman, William Carlos Williams, and Alan Ginsberg, but aside from Robert Frost, there are few celebrated formalists.  And yet I can think of dozens off the top of my head:  In no particular order, Yeats, Dickinson, Hopkins, Wallace Stevens, Dylan Thomas, Browning, Keats, Tennyson, Wilbur come immediately to mind. 

Most of the poems I take a look at in these essays will be formal in the accentual-syllabic fashion, because most of the poems I like are formal.  (I wrote in another place that there is a freedom in not having to invent the guitar while you play it.)

I’m getting a bit long in the tooth myself, so who knows how many of these essays I will finish?  But my plan is to talk about Wyatt and Surrey next, and then a few poets from the English Renaissance.

And actually, I plan to start with Middle English, not Old English. Old English, as in Beowulf, is beyond me, too close to its proto-German roots. But “Old English” is a catchier title, and even though Middle English isn’t Old English, it’s old enough, dating back to the fourteenth century and earlier.

Which is where I begin.

One of the great things about English is that we can, with only a little effort, understand what our ancestors were saying six hundred years ago. It isnt hard to make sense of Middle English, if you have a good teacher. And if you can read Middle English, then all of Chaucer becomes available, including the glory and comedy of the Canterbury Tales.

But you don’t need Middle English to enjoy John Skelton or the many anonymous poems and ballads that follow Chaucer, and English syntax has changed very little since the English Renaissance. Some of the conventions of poetry have changed, but the way we make sentences has changed very little.

The difficulty some people ascribe to Shakespeare has nothing to do with syntax. It owes to the fact that he was master of his language, and knew more words, and more about how to sling them around, than anyone else alive.

In this book I’m not going to talk about Chaucer and Shakespeare, though, except possibly for a few sonnets by the latter. I’m not going to talk about any major dramatic works or epics or book-length poems. I’m going to concentrate on the short lyric—shorter, at least than The Faery Queen or Paradise Lost. I dont mind if a great poem runs to several pages, like Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill” or Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning.”

Neither do I intend to talk about poetry that bores me. This is not an academic book. I dont have to cover the territory.

Edmund Spenser, for example, is to me a crashing bore (there are poets I respect who venerate him). But to me he was out to prove things. He wanted to prove he was right, and he wanted to prove he was a great poet. His language clanks and clunks and makes my head hurt.

I’m going to leave out most of the Restoration period and the Augustan period as well. By me those people were puffed-up blatherers. Dryden thought he was better than Shakespeare. He thought he had perfected the pentameter that Shakespeare had handled with such roughness and crudeness.

Dryden reminds me of contemporary action movies. His characters perform impossible physical stunts, they are one-dimensional, and they come on stage and orate in a manner that reminds me of the catch-phrases of the action heroes.

(Catch Almanzor in The Conquest of Granada: “I have not leisure yet to die.” Does the bombast sound familiar, not to say Schwarzaneggian?)

So we begin with an anonymous poem, familiar to almost everyone, but well worth revisiting. Here it is, in its entirety:

O western wind, when wilt thou blow,

the small rain down can rain?

Christ! that my love were in my arms

and I in my bed again.

It’s in ballad stanza, a form so old its roots are lost in the early history of the language. That is, the stanza form alternates between four-beat lines and three-beat lines. It isnt necessary to define what we mean by four-beat and three-beat just yet. You can hear it if you listen. Quite a few contemporary songs have exactly the same form, as do many of the older English ballads.

Common practice summarizes the structure of a formal poem in a kind of code using letters and numbers. The numbers stand for how many beats there are in a line, and the letters for the rhyme scheme. You would describe the poem above, for example, as follows (using x to stand for unrhymed line-endings):

4x

3a

4x

3a

Actually, there are three common sorts of ballad structure. One is shown above. There is a ballad stanza which rhymes the first and third lines as well as the second and fourth, and a ballad stanza which uses all three-beat lines but has an extra unstressed syllable on the ends of lines one and three.

These forms are codified as below ( – represents the unstressed syllable, and the parends represent optionality):

4a 3x (-)

3a- 3b (-)

4a 3x (-)

3x- 3a (-)

This structural code isn’t what’s important about a poem. Its just a handy device to sharpen the ear, a way to represent part of the sound for the eye. If you can’t hear the actual structure, there’s a problem.

I’ll say the same thing later about a technique called scansion. Scansion is an x-ray of the rhythm of a poem. Scansion and the number-letter structural code do not begin to explain the music of good poetry. You can use them on bad poems as easily as on good ones. They are just learning tools.

The essence of appreciating poetry is learning to hear.

In “Western Wind” itself, I love the alliteration in the first line, the initial w-sounds on western, wind, and wilt. (There are no absolutes, though. Alliteration is not good in itself, not automatically a good thing. Swinburne was heavily given to alliteration, and Swinburne was not a good poet.)

I can’t explain why the alliteration works so well here. It just does, and I love it. Perhaps it gives the right sort of emphasis at the right time.

Sometimes English lets us leave out coordinating conjuctions when the sense is obvious, and that’s what happens in the second line.

We would say today, “(so that) the small rain can rain down.” The syntax we find in the poem is something modern speakers do not allow themselves, a variation called inversion, when a word or phrase is allowed to occur before its expected place in the sentence (though always in another precise position). But if we say the line that way, it does violence to the music, as your ear will tell you.

Why don’t modern poets allow inversion? I don’t know. Taste, I suppose. It sounds outdated, antiquated to our ears, perhaps because it was used by so many bad poets to accomplish rhymes they could not otherwise attain.

Questions occur, or ought to.

Why is it the western wind the poet refers to? What is small rain?

Here’s where the poem begins to enter reality. Weather often seems to come from the west. Particularly in England, where the open weather-generating Atlantic was to the west. When the western wind began to blow, it meant that spring was on the way. And in spring we expect a gentle rain, a rain with light small drops—shall we say, a small rain.

Spring is when we get horny, too, like all the other creatures. The depth of the poet’s longing is expressed in the way the music changes. Christ! the poet says, and the word stands loud and alone, rupturing the smooth flow of the music so far. The poet is alone, and can only cry out in hopeless passion.

Sex is not mentioned directly, but if you want your love in your arms, and you want to be in bed, what else are we talking about? Love, yes, but love without sex seems a curious and abstract thing, if not so grim as sex without love.

Notice, finally, how the last line is a descending series of notes, the poet’s voice falling down the scale in a protracted final low moan of desire: “and I in my bed again.”

Such a brief poem, but so much packed into it. That’s one of the things I love about poetry. It says more than ordinary language. It says more in less space. It does that by taking advantage of the effects of music, and of what we know subconsciously about the tones of a speaking voice.

And there’s the important point again: A poem is made to be heard. In a great poem, nothing is accidental, no lilt or dive or turn of the music, no implied tone of voice, no detail. That doesn’t mean the poet consciously thought through all his or her strategies. No. It would take forever to do that. Look at how long it takes me to say anything meaningful about one little four-line poem that you can read in less than thirty seconds—and I’m condensing.

Before and after “Western Wind” there were plenty of anonymous poems, plenty of anonymous songs. I’m not going to look at them all in detail—there are textbooks for that—but I want to at least mention them.

Most of the songs were, well, ballads. The tunes of the songs are either lost—no voice recorders then, remember—or survive in the tunes of Appalachian folk music (“Bonnie Barbry Allen” is still a staple). The lyrics are almost infallibly in ballad meter (that’s where we get the name of the meter, after all). There are dozens of fine ballads, well worth reading. They’re melodramatic, bloody, pitiless, beautiful, like the best of today’s popular music. They tell tales of good people doing bad things (“Oh where are you going, my son, my son”), of terrible storms (“Sir Patrick Spence”), of the eyes of dead knights being pecked by crows (“Twa Corbies”). I was relatively innocent when I first encountered them, and they opened my eyes to the fact that human nature was pretty much what it still is now, even back in the Middle Ages.

Many of the surviving anonymous poems are religious—“I sing of a maiden who is makeless” (matchless), written in praise of the Virgin Mary, for example. Just as often they are possessed of an earthy frankness.

One could wish to find such a combination more often in modern poetry.

John Skelton is not anonymous, but is hardly read nowadays, and seems of a piece with the times. He wrote a poetry that rhymed but had uneven, unpredictable line lengths—Skeltonics, we call that form now, though hardly anyone else has used it. There’s a wonderful humor and physicality in his poems. Some of them were more formal in pattern. I love “Mannerly Margery milk and ale,” a poem apparently about a barmaid in a tavern, although the first line is the best.

All of these are well worth exploring. I would urge a reader to do what I did, which is wander around in these poems making what sense I could of them and finding lines and characters I still love. It’s the best way to get to know poetry, any poetry. All this explanation is useful, I believe, but it’s for those who want to know more about something they love, or want to learn how to learn more. Actual direct experience is preferable to any amount of explanation

Trust yourself.

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