High Fantasy & The Oratorical Style

[This ‘sort of’ belongs on this blog. It’s a college paper. The only one that was of any interest to me. The paper tries to draw a distinction between a high mimetic mode and a low mimetic mode. According to my reading, the majority of fantasy writers are unaware of the distinction and if they are, use the high mimetic mode clumsily. The paper will probably be of little interest to most people but I have posted it for those few who might enjoy it –  as well as for those who have an interest in Rhetoric as it is used (or not used) by modern writers. Naturally, it also applies to poetry. Since writing it, J.K. Rowling has written her series, Harry Potter, as well as Christopher Paolini, Eregon. Neither writer has adopted or possibly even recognized Tolkien’s rhetorical  techniques. With Rowling, the tone probably would not  be suitable, but Paolini’s prose seems flavorless for the lack of it. If you like this sort of discussion – then enjoy and give me your impression.]

High Fantasy & the Oratorical Style:
The Use of Style in the Creation of the Secondary World

jrr-tolkienAs early as the sixteenth century, Cervantes had killed the romance with Don Quixote, a novel which was both the culmination and the greatest parody of the romance form, and which introduced a new style of prose narrative in what Northrop Frye calls the “low mimetic” mode.  Low mimetic writing deals with the life of ordinary people, with the everyday life we live, seen from the inside, where the mythic and high mimetic modes treat the life of heroes and kings, seen from the outside.(i)

Style is not often discussed in its relation to the creation of a secondary world, or as Tolkien expressed it, in its contribution to the creation of literary(ii).  Yet the style in which narrative is written is the most tangible portion of any work and to disregard it is to disregard its most fundamental feature.
At the time when Cervantes wrote his narrative in prose it was an age of verse with strictly observed metrical patterns.  The choice was provocative and unmistakable.  He himself said of the work:  “It is so conspicuous and void of difficulty that children may handle him, youths may read him, men may understand him, and the old may celebrate him.”  It was as much a part of the work as the characters within it.  The twentieth century is the age of prose.  There are no major works in verse.  The closest a juvenile novel comes to verse may be discovered in Make Lemonade by Virginia Euwer Wolff.  It is written, as it were, in broken prose — the purpose being, perhaps, to imitate the cadence of the characters’ speech.  There is, however, nothing to separate it from prose but line breaks.
But for such obvious diversions, the real stylistic difference between the high mimetic mode and the low mimetic mode (iii) is now far more difficult to pinpoint occurring within the confines of prose.  The “high mimetic modes [treating] the life of heroes and kings, seen from the outside” would seem to have, arguably in the twentieth century, a home in the genre of fantasy.  Yet how does the high mimetic mode, as found in the cantos of Spenser or the lofty blank verse of Milton, translate into prose — the century’s predominant mode?  The answer may be found in Rhetoric.  Rhetoric was first classified by the Greeks as a means of codifying the techniques by which an orator might sway his audience.  Rhetoric therefore has its origins in oratory.  It is only natural then that one should find those same devices used in the epic poetry of Homer, Spencer, or Milton.  The poet is addressing the audience, as it were, as an orator.  He is relating events and wishes to communicate them effectively and persuasively.  It is only natural then that the writer of High Fantasy, in his attempt to more persuasively relate the events of his world, would consciously or subconsciously utilize the rhetorical devices of the orator.  The oratorical voice, that is, will lend weight to the narrative.  This is a High Style which, for the sake of clarity, I’ll call the Oratorical Style.
The genre examined will be a narrow one — that wherein a secondary world is created.  Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising cannot be contrasted with J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1) or Lord of the Rings because she does not attempt to create a secondary world. The more effective contrast is between The Wizard of Earthsea and Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown or Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three.

Hobbit Footnote
The Figures of Oratorical style in Le Guin and Tolkien


Ursula K. Le Guin and J.R.R. Tolkien, it is broadly agreed, have both most successfully created secondary worlds — A Wizard of Earthsea and The Lord of the Rings.  Among the features the books hold in common is an achieved high mimetic style within the confines of prose.  This high style, the oratorical style, is achieved by the use of rhetorical figures historically common to the poetry of tragedy and the epic poem, themselves rooted in oratory.  The following contains the first, and perhaps the most important of the six figures to be examined.
A feeling of fear had been growing in [Fatty Bolger] all day, and he was unable to rest or go to bed: there was a brooding threat in the breathless night air.  As he stared out into the gloom, a black shadow moved under the trees; the gate seemed to open of its own accord and close again without a sound. iv

ProsopopoeiaThe figure prosopopoeia v, personification, is found in the poetry of Homer, medieval sagas and epics, and naturally enough in Milton; though which, in the serious poetry of the twentieth century has all but died out vi.  It is telling that it is alive and well in the literature of high fantasy, which “[treats] the life of heroes and kings.”
In the example above, the night is breathless and the night air is brooding.  Tolkien is, perhaps, unique in the way in which he uses prosopopoeia to effectively create an elemental force that both threatens and sustains the characters within it.  The landscape contains the same elemental force as the good and evil that struggles to control it.  Adding to the impression of the animate within the inanimate, the gate seems “to open of its own accord and close again”.  The world itself becomes, as here, a character within its own universe.
AmplificatioA second figure, perhaps less common today, found in epic poetry is amplificatio viiThe Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms provides the following definition:
The elaboration or, sometimes, the contraction of a statement (as in Meios).  Cicero considered this device of enlargement and ornament “one of the highest distinctions of eloquence.”  Quintilian listed four types of a.: 1.) by augmentation (incrementum), 2) by comparison, 3) by reasoning, and 4) by accumulation (congeries).  The device is prominent in epic and tragic poetry.

The figure of amplification is one often confused by rhetoricians.  It is, for example, treated by some as its own figure and by others it is treated as a category of figures.  The term amplification shall be used for the category and amplificatio as the figure.  The figure may be seen in the following:
When he joined Ged and Serret for supper he sat silent, looking up at his young wife sometimes with a hard, covetous glance.  Then Ged pitied her.  She was like a white deer caged, like a white bird wing-clipped, like a silver ring on an old man’s finger…viii

Syntactic parallelism is used — a series of similes — to elaborate upon the nature of Serret.  It may also be observed more fully in the following paragraph:
As their eyes met, a bird sang aloud in the branches of the tree.  In that moment Ged understood the singing of the bird, and the language of the waterfalling in the basin of the fountain, and the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirred the leaves…ix

Examples like these are far less frequent, as shall be shown, in the writings of Robin McKinley and Lloyd Alexander, revealing a concerted effort by Le Guin to recreate in the realm of prose the techniques previously reserved for the poetry of the epic tradition.  This figure may also be found in Tolkien.  The following example of amplificatio is achieved by the parallelism of anologia (analogy) which in A Handbook to Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, is described by Quintillion as a figure “used for amplification, [that] seeks to rise from the less to the greater…”
The hobbits ran about for a while on the grass, as he told them.  Then they lay basking in the sun [1] with the delight of those that have been wafted suddenly from the bitter winter to a friendly clime, or [2]of people that, after being long ill and bedridden, wake one day to find that they are unexpectedly well…x

TropeThe third figure which will be considered in the creation of the oratorical style is called the Trope.  Again referring to The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms the following definition is offered:
A general term for FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE, that is, language whose semantic meaning must be taken in a metaphorical or figurative sense rather than its literal sense.  Poetic devices such as METAPHOR, METONYMY, SIMILE, and SYNECDOCHE fall under the categories of tropes.

We will concern ourselves only with Metaphor, and at that, only with Verbal Metaphor (2), as it is considered the most potent form of metaphor.  The paragraph following provides two examples:
Once more she lifted her strange bright eyes to him, and her gaze pierced him so that he trembled as if with cold.  Yet there was fear in her face, as if she sought his help but was too proud to ask it. xi

Verb Metaphor Footnote

When Le Guin writes that “once more she lifted her strange bright eyes to him”, the use of the verb lifted is an example of Trope — figurative language.  It is a figure which, among other effects, can add a tremendous degree of weight and formality, can elevate the prose idiom by introducing a primarily poetic affect.  The formality introduced further reinforces the presence of the fictive narrator, the orator, mentioned earlier.  Compare this with a comparable passage from Robin McKinley’s The Hero and the Crown.

She looked up at him and smiled: a lover’s smile, sweet and brilliant, but it was directed at him; her eyes looked at something invisible that she herself did not recognize, and yet his heart stirred in a way he did not recognize. xii

We perceive the character’s actions directly.  It may be said of it that it is less poetic and therefore more immediate.  It is stylistically compatible with the low mimetic mode which “deals with the life of ordinary people, with the everyday life we live, seen from the inside.”  We do as the character does and the division between narrator and character is blurred.  The reader’s initial impression is not of an oratorical delivery.  It may be argued that “her eyes looked at something” is an example of prosopopoeia, however it is not.  Prosopopoeia relies upon catachresis (3), of which this is not an example.  Le Guin’s “Her gaze pierced him” is an example of catachresis as is McKinley’s “his heart stirred,” although McKinley’s verbal metaphor is so overused as to be more readily considered a dead metaphor.

Catachresis Footnote
antisagogeAnother figure, antisagoge, especially with the conjunctive FOR, is ubiquitous especially in the prose of fable and fairy tale but is also found in fantasy.  It is rarely found, significantly, outside of these genres.  It is often over-used by clumsy writers because of its feeling that it elevates prose.  The Longman Dictionary offers the following definition:
A logical figure dealing with cause and effect, or antecedent and consequence.  In a., the antecedent and consequence are linked together in a logical dimension: “Do as your father commands / and you will inherit his lands…”  A. Is often used in discursive as well as poetic PROSE.

The following is an example which follows immediately on the paragraph already quoted from page 119 and so some of that paragraph will be included.
He saw… how they had used his fear to lead him, and how they would, once they had him, have kept him.  They had saved him from the shadow, indeed, for they did not want him to be possessed by the shadow until he had become a slave of the Stone.

The bolded portion is the consequence and the italicized portion is the antecedent.  In this construction the antecedent and the consequence are reversed.  The figure may also be found in Tolkien, though with less frequency than with Le Guin.
Many eyes turned to Elrond in fear and wonder as he told of the Elven-smiths of Eregion and their friendship of Moria, and their eagerness for knowledge, by which Sauron ensnared themFor in that time [Sauron] was not yet evil to behold… xiii

PolysyndetonThe next figure, one of the most common of the six figures considered here, found especially in the prose of high fantasy, and especially in the writing Le Guin, is Acervatio or, as it is more commonly known in Greek, polysyndetonThe Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms again provides the definition defining it as “a grammatical device of rhythm and balance in rhetoric that employs the repetition of conjunctions to effect measured thought and solemnity…” (Bold by Author)  It should be noted that Quintillion includes adverbs and pronouns as characteristic connecting particles. xiv It is a rhetorical device which, if we are to use Milton’s Paradise Lost as a model of the high mimetic mode, finds its home most clearly in this mode.  The following example will suffice as the figure is so frequent as to need no further examples.
Now what Pechvarry and his wife and the witch saw was this: the young wizard stopped midway in his spell, and held the child a while motionless.  Then he had laid little Ioeth gently down on the pallet, and had risen, and stood silent, staff in hand. xv

I have only bolded those conjunctions which are grammatically unnecessary, serving rather stylistic concerns.  The figure of polysyndeton, that is, describes the use of conjunctions which unnecessarily connect words or phrases in a series.  As an extension to this is Le Guin’s polysyndetic use of and and but between phrases and sentences.  The following paragraph illustrates Le Guin’s extensive use of the technique, — an uncommon feature, significantly, in the low mimetic style; and which illustrates the writer’s conscious effort to recreate oratory.  The polysyndetic conjunctions have been bolded.
To Petchvarry it seemed that the wizard also was dead.  His wife wept, but he was utterly bewildered.  But the witch had some hearsay knowledge concerning magery and the ways a true wizard may go, and she saw to it that Ged, cold and lifeless as he lay, was not treated as a dead man but as one sick or tranced. xvi

HyperbatonThe final figure, hyperbaton, is such a frequent figure in the realm of fable, fairy tale, and high fantasy as to need little explanation.  It is a “generic name for rhetorical figures that work through a reorganization of normal word order.”  A specific type of hyperbaton, for example, is anastrophe (involving only two words), a “grammatical construction in which an INVERSION or reversal of the normal word order takes place for the sake of emphasis in meaning, rhythm, melody or tone.” xvii Tolkien uses hyperbaton and its various types throughout The Lord of the Rings where it heightens the tone of the language.  “Like a deer he sprang away.  Through the trees he sped.  On and on he led them, tireless and swift, now that his mind was at last made up.  The woods about the lake they left behind.” xviii It is also especially frequent where the intent of the author writing fantasy is to obsolesce the language spoken by the characters.

The Analysis

The six rhetorical figures described above are not those most commonly found in the oratorical style of high fantasy.  Other figures are equally common within this style — simile, hypotaxis (subordination) and polysyndetic connectives in the writings of Le Guin and, hyperbaton and prepositional metaphor in the writings of Tolkien are so ubiquitous as to seem less a reflection of style than of an author’s habit of thought.  I have chosen the six figures above only because they were the first of the many I happened to isolate.
Nevertheless, these figures are common to all writers in whatever medium.  None of these figures are exclusive and so the distinction is one of degree.  The following table will compare the frequency of these figures in six books:  A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis xix, The Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander xx, The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley xxi, Milton’s Paradise Lost xxii, and Shizuko’s Daughter by Kyoko Mori xxiii.  The final two are a control.  The novel by Mori provides an example of contemporary realistic fiction.  If the suppositions concerning these figures are correct, that they are figures primarily associated with the high mimetic mode, with oratory, then they should occur with the least frequency in Mori — for there is no need to persuade when one writes realistic fiction — and with the most frequency in Milton.  The first fifteen pages from each book will be examined.  Narrative and dialogue will be treated separately.
Lastly, it ought to be said that these numbers only point to a larger pattern.  It might be argued that such a small sampling hardly argues for a consistent style.  Yet if all the rhetorical figures used by the writers of High Fantasy (those writing within the oratorical style) were tallied, they would prove this sampling to be an accurate indicator of a larger stylistic consistency.

Final Table

Conclusion


McKinley and Lewis use the least figures followed by Alexander.  Alexander and Lewis’ fantasies are clearly written for a younger audience and so the use of oratorical figures is restrained and of the most obvious type.  There is no sense of the orator.  Yet neither is the orator’s voice present in McKinley’s work, which, in tone, comes closest to the contemporary realistic fiction of Mori.  Depending on the experience and preference of the reader, the lack of the orator’s presence may produce a disjunctive affect and may even harm her attempt to create a secondary world.  She is, in effect, using a low mimetic style in a high mimetic mode; she is speaking of times past with a twentieth century voice.  As is apparent, Tolkien and Le Guin use the most figures of oratory, writers who are considered to have most successfully created a secondary world, no doubt, reinforced by the oratorical style.  The oratorical voice removes the narrator into the world which he or she is describing, and so helps to create a more self contained universe.

1 The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings offer two very different narrative voices. It wasnít until the Lord of the Rings, in fact, that Tolkien attempted and succeeded in creating a high style, in the same sense that Paradise Lost is written in a high style. The narrative of the Hobbit is a much more personable style. This is achieved primarily by the rhetorical figure Aversio, the sudden alteration from the third person to the second (which never occurs in The Lord of the Rings)p. 160, and by Digressio, or more simply digressions, lending to the narrative a certain home-spun confiding quality.

2“Some verb metaphors are derived from verbs, some from adjectives, and some from compressed noun phrases. The sentence ‘I have blinded myself with optimism’ could have been derived from either the verb ‘to blind’ or the adjective ‘blind.’ We can transform the noun simile ‘He ran away as fast as a rocket can fly’ into the verb m. ‘He rocketed away…’” (The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms. See Metaphor.)

3“…A figure of similarity and dissimilarity, which uses a word that belongs in one dimension of meaning in another dimension. ‘Her hands sniffed into the bag of candy,’ in which hands act as if they were a nose.” (The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms)

i “Literary Realism and Its Effects” 6.

ii J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories,” in his Tree and Leaf, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1965, p.47.

iii Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1957, p. 33.

1. If superior in degree to other men and to the environment of other men, the hero is a divine being, and the story about him will be a myth in the common sense of a story about a god.

2. If superior in degree to other men and to his environment the hero is the typical hero of romance, whose actions are marvelous but who is himself identified as a human being. The hero of romance moves in a world in which the ordinary laws of nature are slightly suspended: prodigies of courage and endurance, unnatural to us, are natural to him, and enchanted weapons, talking animals, terrifying ogres and witches, and talismans of miraculous power violate no rule of probability once the postulates of romance have been established. Here we have moved from myth, properly so called, into legend, folk tale, m‰rchen, and their literary affiliates and derivatives…

3. If superior in degree to other men but not to his natural environment, the hero is a leader. He has authority, passions, and powers of expression far greater than ours, but what he does is subject both to social criticism and to the order of nature. This is the hero of the high mimetic mode, of most epic and tragedy…

4. If superior neither to other men nor to his environment, the hero is one of us: we respond to a sense of his common humanity, and demand from the poet the same canons of probability that we find in our own experience. This gives us the hero of the low mimetic mode, of most comedy and of realistic fiction…

5. If inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, so that we have the sense of looking down on a scene of bondage, frustration, or absurdity, the hero belongs to the ironic mode. This is still true when the reader feels that he is or might be in the same situation as the situation is being judged by the norms of greater freedom.

iv J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, New York, Ballantine Books, 1973, 238.

v Prosopopoeia,” The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms, 1989 ed.

“A rhetorical figure of definition that through vivid and imaginative description lends human qualities to an abstraction, or to an animate or inanimate object.”

vi “Personification,” The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 1993 ed.

“The following enumeration of abstractions in Gray’s [18th c.] ëOde on a Distant Prospect of Eton College shows how such personifications had lost their capacity to produce emotional effects like those in medieval morality plays or in Milton:

These shall the fury Passions tear
The vultures of the mind,
Disdainful Anger, pallid Fear,
And Shame that skulks behind;
Or pining Love shall waste their youth,
Or Jealousy with rankling tooth,
That inly gnaws the secret heart,
And Envy wan, and faded Care
Grim-visaged, comfortless Despair,
And sorrow’s piercing dart.

vii Lee A. Sonnino, A Handbook to Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, New York, Barnes & Noble, Inc., 1968 (see Amplificatio).

viii Le Guin, 114.

ix Le Guin, 35.

x J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, New York, Ballantine Books, 1973, p. 199.

xi Ursula K. Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea, New York, Bantam Books, 1977, p.118.

xii Robin McKinley, The Hero and the Crown, New York, Greenwillow Books, 1984, p. 145.

xiii Ibid. 318.

xiv The Handbook of Sixteenth Century Rhetoric, 19.

xv Le Guin, 81.

xvi Le Guin, 81-82.

xvii The Longman Dictionary of Poetic Terms.

xviii Tolkien, The Two Towers, 26.

xix C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and The Wardrobe, New York, Houghton Mifflin, 1968.

xx Lloyd Alexander, The Taran Wanderer, New York, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967.

xxi Robin McKinley, The Hero and The Crown, New York, Greenwillow Books, 1984.

xxii John Milton, Paradise Lost, ed. Roy Flannagan, New York, MacMillan Publishing Company, 1993.

xxiii Kyoko Mori, Shizukoís Daughter, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1993.

Vernacular, Colloquial, Common, Dialectal

[This is a relatively old post and there has been a lot of interest in it (given the number of hits it receives per day). The article has undergone a drastic revision but even now I think one could dedicate a book to the subject. This post is thin gruel, all considered. I give just a few paragraphs to each poet but at least this may serve as a starting point. My apologies to those looking for a far more detailed and thorough treatment. Maybe on some upcoming posts I’ll go into more detail with specific poets.  Last revision Jan 1, 2009]

Wikipedia, as of my writing this, defines Colloquial as language “considered to be characteristic of or only appropriate for casual, ordinary, familiar, or informal conversation rather than formal speech or writing.”

The Challenge

A number of modern poets have said that they consider the proper voice for poetry to be ordinary speech. Some phrase this as the responsibility of the poet, others equate this choice as a political statement and for others it is a gender issue.

The reasons poets give, however, is not so interesting to me as the practical exercise, especially when it comes to the fusion of colloquial rhythms with metrical poetry. So my focus is on poets who write metrical (or formal) poetry with the hope that what I write can be applied to free verse poets as well.

The question is why, over a stretch of four centuries, there have been so few poets who write colloquially in metered verse. The answer, in part, is that it takes a special confluence of talents – the ability to work within meter with ease and mastery along with the talent to hear and reproduce the tone and inflection of ordinary speech. The two abilities don’t always go together. Add to this the circumstance of time and place, and it’s no wonder such a poet is so rare.

Back in the Day

william-shakespeareWhat makes writing colloquially in metered verse so difficult is that the rhythm of colloquial speech frequently runs counter to the regular patterns of accentual syllabic verse. It didn’t always used to be so difficult. When Shakespeare needed to write colloquially or dialectally, and needed to do it in Blank Verse, he could use all sorts of metrical cheats and did – elevating such devices to an art form. Here are just some of those tricks, drawn from Shakepeare’s Use of the Arts of Language, by Sister Miriam Joseph.

If Shakespeare needed an extra syllable, he used prosthesis to change rattle to berattle.

If he needed to change a trochaic word to a dactyl, he used epenthesis, changing meetly to meeterly.

If he needed to omit a syllable he could use aphaeresis, changing against to gainst.

If he needed to omit a syllable from the middle of the word he used syncope, changing prosperous to prosp’rous.

In short, Shakespeare could freely omit or add syllables as necessary. It was the norm and was prized in Elizabethan times when done skillfully. It was through the use of prosthesis and proparalepsis (adding a syllable to the end of a word), that many of our modern words were coined by Shakespeare. The bottom line is that using these techniques made writing colloquially and dialectally, in meter (Iambic Pentameter), much, much easier. Consider the Nurse in Romeo & Juliet, one of the most memorably colloquial characters in all of Shakespeare:

Lord, how my head aches! what a head have I!
It beats as it would fall in twenty pieces.
My back o’ t’ other side,–O, my back, my back!
Beshrew your heart for sending me about,
To catch my death with jaunting up and down!

In the second line Shakespeare uses the figure elipsis or eclipsis to eliminate the word if and the figure apocope to eliminate the last syllable of the preposition into. In other words, the line should read: It beats as if it would fall into twenty pieces. However, this would introduce two anapests (in the third & fourth foot) into the Iambic line, an embarrassing disaster in Shakespeare’s day.

scansion-romeo-juliet

I’m not sure a modern poet would dare to use the same techniques. Then, in the third line, the nurse’s colloquial speech once again threatens to rupture the Iambic Pentameter pattern.

scansion-romeo-juliet-2

This could probably be scanned differently, but this is my stab it. I’ve chosen to treat the third foot as a heavy feminine ending before a midline break (the comma after O). One could argue, perhaps, that the midline break really comes after side. In which case it would read:

scansion-romeo-juliet-3

In this case, the fourth foot would be a kind of double-onset after the midline break (after the word side). In both cases, the scansions are easily within the realm of acceptable iambic pentameter variants. In fact, the lines are mostly iambic. Shakespeare, of course, pulls this off by using the figure syncope, removal of a letter or syllable from the midle of a word – o’t’other side. If he hadn’t used this figure, the second foot would have been an anapest. In Shakespeare’s day, this anapest, along with the heavy feminine ending or the double onset (however you choose to scan it) would have exceeded the bounds of a tolerable variant.

A brief note on Shakespeare’s use of Proverbs. Of all the poets who put pen to paper, Shakespeare is the most conversant in the proverbial lore of this day. His mind was filled with proverbs and their use is like a multi-colored thread through the entirety of his output. At some point I may write a post on his use of proverbs. They give to his verse and to the voice of his characters an earthiness and familiarity that we hear as colloquial  and vernacular. But Shakespeare wasn’t unique in his love of proverbs. The Elizabethans were avid collectors of proverbs and they were taught them from their childhood schooldays. All the great Elizabethan playwrights sprinkled their writing with proverbial lore – if not so skillfully as Shakespeare.

Robert Burns

robert-burns-2One of the most dialectal, as opposed to colloquial, of English poets is Robert Burns, so much so that some of his poems are almost incomprehensible without annotation.

The night was still, and o’er the hill
The moon shone on the castle wa’;
The mavis sang, while dew-drops hang
Around her on the castle wa’.

Sae merrily they danc’d the ring,
Frae e’enin till the cocks did craw,
And aye the owerword o’ the spring
Was Irvine’s bairns are bonie a’.

This wonderful little tetrameter poem was written in rhyming couplets. Burns uses several metrical “cheats” to fit the dialect within the feet – all the same as those in Shakespeare’s day. He uses syncope to change over to o’er and evening to e’ening. In both cases he avoided an anapest. Notice that he doesn’t elide the word merrily. Even though we might, ourselves, be tempted to pronounce it with two syllable – merr’ly – Burns clearly wants it pronounced as a three syllable word – mer-ri-lyotherwise the solidly iambic patter breaks down.

Now, there’s one line that is especially tricky. How do you read: And aye the owerword o’the spring? One might be tempted to read the line as follows:

scansion-robert-burns

However, this would give us a dactyl in the third foot – something which, up to now, Burns has studiously avoided. The elipsis o’the, reducing two syllables to one, gives us a clue as to how Burns would like us to read the line.

scansion-robert-burns-2

With this reading the perfectly iambic pattern of the lyric is preserved. In fact, Burns (for all his dialect) is far, far more conservative than Shakespeare ever was and even Milton! His poems are all, by in large, strictly iambic.  And he accomplishes this feat using a variety of metrical “cheats”. Burns, it seems, valued metrical regularity over the irregular pull of dialectal diction. Another interesting facet of Burns’ poems is that, for all the dialectal vocabulary, his use of colloquialism or the vernacular voice is relatively normal. He may use colloquial or proverbial phrases, but not in any way that truly sets him apart from other poets. From A Dedication:

Be to the poor like ony whunstane,
And haud their noses to the grunstane;

The phrase the poor like ony whunstane has a proverbial ring to it. The colloquial expression hold their noses to the grindstone is typical of Burns’ use. Unlike Shakespeare, who poetically enriches his proverbs, Burns writes them out as he’s heard them. Having said all that, his use of these effects, when added to the rich dialectal voice of his poetry, unquestionably lends his poetry (despite their strict metrical devices) an air of the commonplace and the common voice.

But my point, in all this, is to demonstrate just how many metrical cheats poets were able to employ when writing colloquially or otherwise.

john-clareJohn Clare

John Clare’s career began as Burns’ ended. Like Burns he wrote about common things, but did so without  Burns’ virtuosity.When other poets were writing (or attempting to write) with a more elevated and heightened style, in a High Mimetic Mode, Clare was writing about common things in a common voice.

From The Nightingale’s Nest:

Hush! let the wood-gate softly clap for fear
The noise might drive her from her home of love,
From here I’ve heard her many a merry year
At morn, at eve, nay, all the livelong day,
As though she lived on song.

The phrase many a merry year is colloquial, as well as all the livelong day – an idiomatic & vernacular English (as opposed to uniquely American) expression. Like Burns, though, Clare is very careful to stay within the metrical foot – archly conservative in his use of variants. The only variants I could find were trochaic first feet (blank verse).  In the lines above, one might be tempted to read the third line as a variant.

scansion-clare

This reading would create an anapestic fourth foot. In the entirety of the poem, no line veers from ten syllables and hardly veers from Iambic. Although Clare hasn’t used syncope or elipsis to slur the syllables, the correct reading is almost certainly as follows:

scansion-clare-21

This reading retains the strong Iambic Pentameter pattern of the poem. It again shows how poets, writing in meter, expected to fuse colloquial diction with the demands of meter. Clare’s omission of elipsis was a sign of the future – when more modern poets, writing in meter, would omit the visible indication of slurred syllables on the presumption that a knowledgeable reader of metered verse would slur the syllables without prompting – other modern poets – not aware of this tradition – simply read their lines as anapests and see up to two or three anapests as an acceptable variant. My own feeling is that more than two anapests in a line tends to be a departure from Iambic Pantameter rather than a variant.

At other times, there was no need for Clare to use such figures of grammar. His colloquial speech fit effortlessly into the pattern of whatever meter he was writing:

Hark! there she is as usual- let’s be hush –
For in this blackthorn-clump, if rightly guessed,
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside
Those hazel branches in a gentle way
And stoop right cautious ‘neath the rustling boughs…

Such colloquial phrases as if rightly guessed and stoop right cautious fit neatly in the iambic pattern. Clare’s only concession was use aphaeresis when changing beneath to ‘neath – the only such figure in the entirety of the blank verse poem.

Most of John Clare’s poetry follows this similar pattern. An attentive reader can deduce that he wrote quickly, his verse frequently filled with words that do little more than fill out the meter, but his voice is always at ease and filled with the sort of speech and rhythms that seldom found their way into the more rarefied poeticizing of his contemporaries.

That said, and like Burns, Clare’s meter always remains rigid and archly conservative.

In fact, after the Elizabethans, the history of meter is one of ever increasing rigidity. The plasticity of a developing language hardened. By the end of the 17th Century words and their usages were all but standardized in comparison to the free-wheeling heydey of Shakespeare’s period. What this meant was that these techniques, rather than being an outgrowth of (and contributing to) a developing language, were becoming tools of poetry rather than of language. The coinage of new words declined rapidly and was even frowned on. Concomitant to this reining in of loose canons was an increasingly formal tone in poetry. Erudition, refinement and dignity were the bywords of Restoration Poetry – the stuff of Pope, Dryden , Davenant, Milton – not colloquialism. The malleable freedom of blank verse gave way to the strict accounting of heroic couplets. So, even though poets had the tools available to them, the times weren’t right. Colloquialism no longer found its way into the poetry of the leading poets.

After the restoration, even as the tyranny of heroic couplets finally began to give way, the rigidity of the restoration left its stamp of the following generations. The extravagant adventurousness of the Elizabethans were all but forgotten and seldom imitated, even as the nineteenth century fell under the sway of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and the great Victorains – Browning and Tennyson.

By the end of the nineteenth century many of the techniques used to fulfill the demands of meter and rhyme had become no more than mannerisms. It was to this that Pound was reacting when he rejected the sing-song meter of the Victorians. He believed that the only way to liberate poetry from the stale exigencies of meter and rhyme was to liberate it from meter and rhyme. Free verse was born and the exigencies were thrown out the window. They were no longer needed.

To some poets, though, Pound was taking the easy way out.

A few Poets looked for a new way to fuse the colloquial voice with metrical poetry.

Colloquialism without the Cheats

ea-robinsonE.A. Robinson was already meeting the demands of meter without recourse to the tired devices of his contemporaries — the tired metrical cheats, the flowery language and expostulations. Robinson’s poetry, for the first time in English language poetry,  reunited the common, colloquial voice with the demands of formal poetry.

The Blank Verse poem Aunt Imogen is a fine example of Robinson’s more vernacular and supple style. There are no thees or thous, no syncope, no elipsis, no aphaerisis.

The verse begins with an informality that was, up to this point, unheard of .

Aunt Imogen was coming, and therefore
The children—Jane, Sylvester, and Young George—
Were eyes and ears; for there was only one
Aunt Imogen to them in the whole world,
And she was in it only for four weeks
In fifty-two.

Knowing that the verse is iambic pentameter blank verse, we know a few things about the first line:

aunt-imogen

The first is that the first & last syllable of Imogen receives the strong stress, not the second syllable. The second thing we know is that therefore is pronounced differently than nowadays, with the second syllable receiving the stress – there-fore’. A quick search in Webster’s (not the dinky collegiate version but the old one the size of a cinder block) confirms that the older pronunciation of therefore was more prevalent in Robinson’s day. (Trochaic feet, in the fifth foot of an Iambic Pentameter line, is extremely rare before the middle of the 20th Century.) Robinson doesn’t mind the Pyrrhic fourth foot, willing to exchange metrical rigidity for phrasal flexibility.

After the informality of the first line Robinson offers up some American vernacular. “Were eyes and ears” comes from the expression all ears, a uniquely American Idiomatic expression. Then the next lines seek to echo the voice of the children saying that  “there was only one/Aunt Imogen to them in the whole world. It is the kind of exaggerated expression children are prone to but which, up to now, rarely found its way into serious poetry. Robinson ends this first sentence with the following: “And she was in it only for four weeks
In fifty-two”.
The closing words have the feeling of a conversational aside, adding to the air of informality and colloquial speech – something which Frost was to develop even further. There is, deliberately, no rhetorical heightening in any  of these lines.

In terms of the meter, Robinson relaxes his strict accounting, allowing the colloquialism to disrupt the iambic pattern.

robinson-in-the-whole-world

I read the first of the two lines as containing what’s called a double foot – a Pyrrhic-Spondee. (The double foot is an Iambic Pentameter variant which Sidney, an early pioneer of Iambic Pentameter, made frequent use of.)  The next line mirrors the first, though this time I read the line as having five feet. Though it probably was not deliberate on Robinson’s part, the second line helps re-affirm the Iambic Pentameter pattern without sacrificing Robinson’s colloquial effects. The effect is supple and flexible. It is a new voice in the poetry of blank verse.

There’s more to say about this poem but I think another poem will better demonstrate the other salient feature of Robinson’s verse – his magnificent Sonnet “The Sheaves”. He generally resists altering the natural grammar of spoken English for the sake of rhyme or metrical rhythm. He finds ways to preserve normal speech patterns while preserving the integrity of the Iambic Pentameter pattern. This is significant. Up until Robinson, poets regularly reversed grammatical units depending on what Iamb or Rhyme they needed.

For example, consider Wordsworth’s Scorn not the Sonnet:

“the melody
Of this small lute gave ease to Petrarch’s wound;
A thousand times this pipe did Tasso sound”

The last line reverses the normal grammatical order for the sake of the rhyme wound/sound. Allowing that we don’t use the auxillary verb do as an expletive, one would normall say: Tasso did sound this pipe a thousand times or Tasso sounded this pipe a thousand times.

Robinson tries to dispense with such devices, rhetorical heightening, the use of the antiquated pronouns thee or thou for a much more familiar and “low American”  colloquial voice or or “low mimetic style” (See my post on the Oratorical Style for a discussion of high and low mimetic styles – the discussion is in reference to Fantasy Writers but applies to poetry as well. Apart from the poets mentioned in this post, and up until the 20th Century, most poets writing in meter chose to write in a high mimetic style, including Emily Dickinson.)

Where long the shadows of the wind had rolled,
Green wheat was yielding to the change assigned;
And as by some vast magic undivined
The world was turning slowly into gold.
Like nothing that was ever bought or sold
It waited there, the body and the mind;
And with a mighty meaning of a kind
That tells the more the more it is not told.

So in a land where all days are not fair,
Fair days went on till on another day
A thousand golden sheaves were lying there,
Shining and still, but not for long to stay —
As if a thousand girls with golden hair
Might rise from where they slept and go away.

Robinson’s concessions are change assigned, magic undivined and long to stay (where one would normally expect assigned change, undivined magic and to stay long. Other than that, the poem sounds thoroughly modern to an American ear. Whitman can sound modern to an American ear, but Whitman set aside meter to do it. Robinson didn’t and that, and if only in this respect, is all the more impressive.

Robert Frost: A Master of Colloquialism in Poetry

robert-frost-youngAfter Robinson, Robert Frost became the unrivaled twentieth century master of the colloquial. Frost, through skill, genius or sheer determination, dispensed with any metrical concessions. His verse is free of grammatical inversions, syncope, elision or any of the other metrical concessions. And there are no wasted words – words merely to pad the meter. His colloquial phrases strain the meter (and he was criticized for it even by his students – Robert Francis). But nonetheless, he mastered both the demands of formal poetry and colloquial sense and discursiveness – the halting, digressive, deliberative and informal pattern of our daily talk.

We don’t speak in five paragraph essays, but feel our away forward, our thoughts shaped by what we build on. This is the tone that Frost mastered.  His uniqueness, in this respect, and the difficulty of his art is attested to by the fact that, so far, few poets and fewer poems have achieved anything comparable.

‘The wonder is I didn’t see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it – that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound’

~ Home Burial: Robert Frost

Notice how Frost imitates the deliberative pattern of colloquial speech. The husband says: “I never noticed it from here before.” Then, colloquially, he reflects: “I must be wonted to it“. The poem is written in Blank Verse and the phrase fits neatly within the meter.  Outside the sphere of Dramatic Verse, no other poet before Frost ever introduced the everyday pattern of speech into verse.  This was Frost’s innovation. Notice the dialectal effect of “We haven’t to mind those.”

Dictionary.com defines Dialect “as a variety of a language that is distinguished from other varieties of the same language by features of phonology, grammar, and vocabulary, and by its use by a group of speakers who are set off from others geographically or socially.”

The pithiness of “We haven’t to mind those” is characteristic of the New England dialect still alive and well, up in Vermont – a tight, clipped and northerly accent. However, the dialectal language strains against the meter.

scansion-home-burial

This is a hard line to scan and don’t hold me to it. “We have” is iambic but from there, the dialect of the voice plays against the meter – the sort of liberty that Frost was criticized for by more traditional poets.  Nevertheless, Frost just manages to fuse the colloquial tone with the overall Iambic Pentameter pattern (the variant feet are an allowable variant).

That’s hard to do, especially for modern poets. One has to have an ear for colloquial language, for meter, and how to fit the two together. My own poetry shows the learning process. In my poem Come Out!, the first of my poems where I was able to fuse colloquial speech and meter, there are still some poetic turns of phrases that, if I were to write it now, I might avoid.

But I might be taught,
I should supposeI can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With womenfolk.  We could have some arrangement
By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you’re a-mind to name.

The phrase I should suppose is a Frostian touch followed by the colloquial asseveration  I can’t say I see how. It’s worth noting that he could have written I can’t see how but he needed the extra iamb |say I| to fill the meter. Because the phrase is speech-like and feels natural, the filling out of the line feels natural. But there’s another Frostian feature of the line, and that is the tension between natural speech pattern and the Iambic Pentameter pattern. A colloquial reading might go something like this:

robert-frost-i-should-suppose-colloquial-reading

This, at least, is how I would expect a local to say it. But something Frost is renowned for, and probably because of the tension between phrase and meter, is his tendency to put the expected metrical stress on words that normally might not receive stress. Here’s how the phrase reads if one takes the meter into account:

robert-frost-i-should-suppose

With this second reading, should takes empasis. The husband knows he should be more cognizant of his wife’s experience. And we know that this is how Frost meant the line to be read because the husband immediately avers, reconsiders, saying I can’t say I see how. In this phrase the iambic stress is on can’t and I. The husband has already determined that he can’t see through his wife’s experience and probably won’t. Not I he says.

The effect finds parallels in A Swinger of Birches, among other poems. The speaker seems to turn back, aver, reconsider what he’s spoken just as we do in everyday speech.

You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground,
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter-of-fact about the ice-storm
,
I should prefer to have some boy bend them

The colloquialism of the italicized lines, like many of the lines, plays hard against the meter. In this sample, there is only one line that is indisputable Iambic Pentamter: Like girl on hands and knees that throw their hair. Taken at face value, the iambic pattern is lost, breaks down in these lines, but there is the echo of an older reading in these lines (and it is with this knowledge that Frost allowed himself some variance).

For instance, in Shakespeare’s day a little syncope and elipsis would have regularized the line :

Before them over their heads to dry in the sun
Before them o’er   their heads to dry i’th’sun

But he was going to to say when Truth broke in

[Where going is slurred via elision to read as one syllable.]

matter-of-fact-elision

On the other hand, Frost allows himself a more flexibility, willing to end a final foot with a trochee: bend them; willing to vary the Pentameter with a Tetrameter line having two anapests.

frost-anapestic-lines

In short, Frost was skilled at matching colloquial phrase to the metrical line, but he was also willing to deviate from the pattern when the phrasing mattered more than the meter. It was a flexibility that served him beautifully, and which he seemed to beautifully balance (never completely losing the iambic pentameter feel) – a flexibility which, as we will see, no modern poets writing in meter seem to have absorbed from Frost – despite their study and admiration of the poet. As for myself, my own poem All Hallows’ Eve works toward that ideal, along with some newer poems I have’t posted yet.

[For a look at meter and colloquialism in another Frost poem, check out my post on A Road Not Taken.]

After Frost

richard-wilburRichard Wilbur , probably considered the natural heir to Frost, seldom touches on the colloquial voice the way Robert Frost does. His voice and technique harken back to an older poetry – to Robinson mor than to Frost. Not only are Wilbur’s poems frequently formal in structure, but they mostly sound formal, even his free verse. The are spoken with an air of formality or literariness that works against the colloquial voice. Consider “Seed Leaves”, dedicated to R.F. (Robert Frost?). The poem begins:

Dislodging the earth crumbs
Here something stubborn comes,
It comes up bending double,
And looks like a green staple.
And making crusty rubble.

The inverted grammar of the first line, for the sake of the rhyming “comes/crumbs” firmly undercuts the feeling of a colloquial voice. The subject/verb inversion as much as announces the presence of Poet, much as one clears his throat before he speaks. In his latest collection, “Mayflies”, perhaps the most masterful , none of the poems are written in a voice other than his own — always the poet speaking. “The Crow’s Nest” begins:

That lofty stand of trees beyond the field,
Which in the storm of summer stood revealed…

Once again, this time in the second line, the normal order of subject, object and verb gives way to the exigencies of rhyme. And this is the trap of formal poetry, which only Frost seems to have overcome– how to write a metrical and rhyming poem while preserving the vernacular, colloquial voice.

Timothy Steele

timothy-steeleTimothy Steele, a contemporary poet well-liked for his skill in formal poetry, succeeds in areas where Wilbur does not. In one of his most Frostian poems, he largely succeeds, but Steele pays a dear price. It is excessively derivative both in voice and subject matter, as though Steele couldn’t write a colloquial poem without adopting not just Frost’s voice, but also his subject matter. Consider “Timothy“:

Although the field lay cut in swaths,
Grass at the edge survived the crop:
Stiff stems. with lateral blades of leaf,
Dense cattail flower-spikes at the top.
If there was breeze and open sky,
We raked each swath into a row;
If not , we took the hay to dry
To the barn’s golden-showering mow.

Compare this to extracts from Frost’s poems “Mowing” and “Tuft of Flowers”, written, probably, a hundred years earlier:

[Notice the echo of gold in the poem above and below…]

It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,

Or easy gold…

[Or the echo of “row” and Frost’s “swale” with Steel’s “swaths”…]

To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows…

[Or compare how flowers and spikes show up in both poems…]

Not without feeble-pointed spokes of flowers…

Or compare Steele’s “we took the hay to dry” with Frost’s “to toss the grass to dry“…

Steel’s poem is rife with Frostian parallels, so much so that one suspects that Steele either deliberately imitated Frost in style and subject as a way to learn , or that Steele is altogether too pickled in his admiration. His reverence borders outright theft. Thankfully, Steel’s other poems are not as pickled, but he does not, to my knowledge, ever write in another’s voice – something which lends itself to colloquial or dialectal diction. It were as though none of the formal poets had ever read anything beyond Frost’s very first book?

[Current revision ends here – Dec 21 2008]

Rebel Angels

[My intention is to provide some fuller examples from Lea’s poem – Dec 21 2008].

Sydney Lea

Sydney Lea

I paged through “Rebel Angels” a compendium of 25 poets: “Poets of the New Formalism”; and I could not firmly identify any poem as being written in a voice other than the “poet’s”, as opposed to say, Frost’s The Housekeeper, or The Witch of Coos or The Pauper Witch of Grafton. The only poet who might count is Sydney Lea and the poem The Feud. Lea comes the closest to a distinct (which is to say not Frostian) colloquial voice. His poems begins:

I don’t know your stories. This one here
is the meanest one I’ve got or ever hope to.
Less than a year ago. Last of November,
but hot by God! I saw the Walker gang…

In an earlier version of the post, I remarked that Lea’s meter was too variable to be true blank verse.

No longer. In fact, I find Lea’s meter to be somewhat conservative; and reading it now, I sometimes wish the colloquial phrasing conformed a little less to the Iambic pattern! That said, I wish the same for some of my poems. Lea’s poem is an admirable  effort – more so now that I’ve given it a second consideration.

My only disappointment remains the use of Italics (in the second line) – and something Sydney uses elsewhere in the poem.

One of the great advantages of meter, which free verse is incapable of, is in the ability to stress words that otherwise might not be stressed, according to their place in the metrical line. Consider Shakespeare’s most famous sonnet that begins “Let me not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediments…” The temptation is to read it as follows: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” However, Shakespeare’s sonnets rarely, some say never, deviate from the iambic norm. A safer bet is to assume that Shakespeare is playing against the meter, expecting us to read it as follows: “Let me not to the marriage of true minds” Admittedly, the prepositions [to] and [of] should not receive much stress.

The meaning of Shakespeare’s poem is very different when the meter is kept in mind. Lea, on the other hand, fails to use the meter to advantage. The italics, in fact, vary from the meter and act as a sort of cheat. In Lea’s poem we’ve come full circle. Only now, the effect is not to preserve the meter but to ignore it!

Coda

There’s more to write on this  subject, and I will.

It would be interesting to consider how colloquialism has been used in differing forms. For now, I still hope to find the formal poet who can re-unite the colloquial, common and vernacular with meter, verse and rhyme.