The verse of ten syllables, which we call the English Heroic

If you had been in Westminster Abbey last Friday you might have noticed a tall, balding middle-aged man speaking to himself and counting on his fingers. Although, given that the abbey houses a thousand years of British history you would have had to have been cursed with a phenomenally short attention span to have done so. I was counting the syllables in the epitaphs, such as David Garrick’s

                    To paint fair Nature, by divine command,

                     Her magic pencil in his glowing hand,

                     A Shakspeare rose, then to expand his fame,

                     Wide o’er this “breathing world”, a Garrick came.

                     Though sunk in death the forms the Poet drew,

                      The actor’s genius bade them breathe anew;

                      Though, like the Bard himself, in night they lay,

                      Immortal Garrick call’d them back to day;

                      And till eternity with power sublime,

                      Shall mark the mortal hour of Hoary Time,

                      Shakspeare & Garrick like twin stars shall shine,

                      And earth irradiate with a beam divine.

Which, if my counting and sub-vocalisation in Westminster Abbey was correct is made up of the rhyming scheme AABBAABBAABB; in duple time; iambic in metre, decasyllabic in nature, with a possible feminine ending on the last line (rhyming couplets, in double time, five feet – five groups of two syllables – in a line of ten syllables and the last line having an extra syllable depending if you swallow or not a syllable in “divine”).  “Ah, Rain Man” said  my nephew over lunch in a pub on the edge of Hampstead Heath the following day.

Had I not already bought a copy of The Making of Verse: a Guide to English Metres by Robert Swann and Frank Sidgwick (first published 1934), as recommended by Bennett at the end of chapter 8 of Literary Taste, I’m sure I would still have enjoyed my visit to the abbey. But having read the first ten chapters I feel that I came away with the conceited delight of knowing I was able to do something other people cannot do. A conceit tempered by the knowledge that other people not only do not know that they do not know, but if they did know that they did not know, they wouldn’t care. But it is a lovely book, written in a style that alternates between the dry criticism of poetic failure and the unashamed admiration of its successes. It does not preach, it only seeks to bring you into the writers’ circle of knowledge with the promise of at least being to see how the great poets put together the nuts and bolts of their constructions. Bennett says it much better when he writes of the book “With such a manual in front of you, you can acquire in a couple of hours a knowledge of the formal principles in which in which the music of English verse is rooted. The business is trifling. But the business of appreciating the inmost spirit of the greatest verse is tremendous and lifelong. It is not something that can be ‘got up’.”

The book, to use a wildly inappropriate analogy, has been a real “game changer.” As if something important depended on something else happening which came as a welcome surprise to everyone involved, such as selling cheddar cheese to the French by having the ghost of Albert Camus go on TV and tell them how good it is. I had already read Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets but now I could go back and read his chapter on Milton and understand it when he wrote “…he naturally solaced his solitude by the indulgence of his fancy and the harmony of his numbers” or say to myself “Oh that Alexander Pope!” when I read of him pooh-poohing the alexandrine, twelve syllables(or numbers), instead of ten, and therefore having six feet instead of five. But more than this, much more than this, I could read a verse from Dryden’s The Fire of London,

                 Methinks already from this chymic flame

                 I see a city of more precious mold

                 Rich as the town which gives the Indies name

                 With silver paved, and all divine with gold

and see that the genius of the man lay in the way in which he wrote the last line with two words of one syllable each, in contrast to the preceding three which also have two words but of three syllables, forcing us to adapt the rhythm with which we read the poem. It is this playing with the rules, unlike their classical counterparts writing in Latin two millenia before, that allowed the English poets of the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such a range of expression in their work.

So, for all of the above, I think an outstanding plot of (10,1) is quite justified, a long and low trajectory of a literary taste being formed.

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