Showing posts with label analysis. Show all posts
Showing posts with label analysis. Show all posts

Friday, 2 March 2018

Sound must seem an echo to the Sense!

The poetry of Alexander Pope (1688-1744) is sometimes associated with a cramped 'classical' approach to the imagination. However, rhythmic life and energy are bound up in Pope's rhyming couplets. He has an ear for music and movement. In fact, he often speaks about dance or employs its as a metaphor. Rhythm and dance provide a rich vein of physicality. Like Dryden, Pope perfected his ability to hear the inherent musicality of words and their sinewy rhythmic potential. He is a master of the soft rhapsodic cadences of lyric and elegy as much as the harsh, rough music of snarling satire.

Although many of Pope's poems present formidable challenges to modern readers it eill eb apparent that a judicious selection of extracts will repay close reading and recitation. Students should also attempt to write their own couplets as this creative process will enable them to understand the levels of subtlety and complexity that can be achieved.

Alexander Pope's Essay on Criticism (1711) was written in 1709 when he was 21. His poem discussed the balance between nature and art; creativity and criticism; freedom and regularity.

Influences: Boileau's Art Po├ętique (1674) and the French critics, Rapin and Le Bossu; Latin verse-essays of Horace, Vida, and two minor Restoration writers, the Earls of Mulgrave and Roscommon. Also borrows form the classical Roman writer, Quintilian. As the final line of this extract on the role of sound qualities and versification also demonstrates, the poet and critic John Dryden was also an inspiration for Pope.

As elsewhere in the poem, Pope practises what he preaches; he explains by doing. In order to grasp his sense of how sound functions in poetry, all we have to do is read the poem aloud. Notice how variously he employs the effects of vowels and consonants.

The common sense notion that sound supports the sense (meaning/ideas) is brilliantly demonstrated as a happy union or balance between the two aspects of poetry. Pope shows us examples of the tedious and repetitive uses of sounds, which he contrasts with more inspiring models of agility and lively expression.

An Essay on Criticism

Alexander Pope

But most by Numbers judge a Poet's Song,
And smooth or rough, with them, is right or wrong;
In the bright Muse tho' thousand Charms conspire,
Her Voice is all these tuneful Fools admire,
Who haunt Parnassus but to please their Ear,
Not mend their Minds; as some to Church repair,
Not for the Doctrine, but the Musick there.
These Equal Syllables alone require,
Tho' oft the Ear the open Vowels tire,
While Expletives their feeble Aid do join,
And ten low Words oft creep in one dull Line,
While they ring round the same unvary'd Chimes,
With sure Returns of still expected Rhymes.
Where-e'er you find the cooling Western Breeze,
In the next Line, it whispers thro' the Trees;
If Chrystal Streams with pleasing Murmurs creep,
The Reader's threaten'd (not in vain) with Sleep.
Then, at the last, and only Couplet fraught
With some unmeaning Thing they call a Thought,
A needless Alexandrine ends the Song,
That like a wounded Snake, drags its slow length along.
Leave such to tune their own dull Rhimes, and know
What's roundly smooth, or languishingly slow;
And praise the Easie Vigor of a Line,
Where Denham's Strength, and Waller's Sweetness join.
True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn'd to dance,
'Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Eccho to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse shou'd like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rocks' vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow;
Not so, when swift Camilla scours the Plain,
Flies o'er th'unbending Corn, and skims along the Main.
Hear how Timotheus' vary'd Lays surprize,
And bid Alternate Passions fall and rise!
While, at each Change, the Son of Lybian Jove
Now burns with Glory, and then melts with Love;
Now his fierce Eyes with sparkling Fury glow;
Now Sighs steal out, and Tears begin to flow:
Persians and Greeks like Turns of Nature found,
And the World's Victor stood subdu'd by Sound!
The Pow'rs of Musick all our Hearts allow;
And what Timotheus was, is Dryden now.

In The Art of Love, the Roman poet Ovid provides some tips (for women) on the cultivation of voice and the power of song (poetry):
Sirens, though monsters of the stormy main,
Can ships when under sail with songs detain:
Scarce could Ulysses by his friends be bound,
When first he listen’d to the charming sound.
Singing insinuates: learn all ye maids;
Oft when a face forbids, a voice persuades:
Whether on theatres loud strains we hear,
Or in Ruelles some soft Egyptian air,
Well shall she sing of whom I make my choice,
And with her lute accompany her voice.
The Rocks were stirr’d, and beasts to listen stay’d
When on his lyre melodious Orpheus play’d,
Ev’n Cerberus and hell that sound obey’d.
And stones officious were, thy walls to raise,
O Thebes, attracted by Amphion’s lays.
The Dolphin, dumb itself, thy voice admir’d,
And was, Arion, by the songs inspir’d,
Of sweet Callimachus the works rehearse,
And read Phileras’ and Anacreon’s verse;
Terentian plays may much thy mind improve,
But softest Sappho best instructs to love.
Propertius, Gallus, and Tibullus read,
And let Varronian verse to these succeed.

See Ars Amatoria, translated by Congreve, Book 3.

Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
 and 11+ English 

Friday, 27 June 2014

Poetry at War with Itself: the Sound of Futility

When student readers struggle with poetry, it's often the relationship between sound and sense that presents a high degree of difficulty. It's very easy to be overcome by pitter-patter rhythms and arcane names for metrical techniques and poetic forms.

But picking sound patterns may help to open up a variety of interpretations. This means shifting from the identification of a local effect to the elaboration of more complex and nuanced semantic possibilities.

The first sonic task for the critical reader involves the spotting of similar sounds such as alliteration. A higher level of creative reading requires sensitivity in order to link these sound clusters to the poem's questions, and its answers.

A great poem holds together, in tight compression, the different elements of form and technique, tones and style, form and content. Critical writing - the exposition and appreciation of a poem - involves a reversal of this process: decompression.

By association, sounds breed other sounds, and suggest other senses. Often the sound elements will help to unlock the key themes in a poem. In fact, sounds may help us to identify the main theme, and also may help us to point out its component parts. Subliminally, perhaps, the sounds also hint at multiple levels and layers of meaning. Packed into a small space, such as a sonnet, a poem is bursting at the seams. The poet binds the elements together using form and technique.

Sound associations help to hold everything together. . Also, sounds help us to focus on a cluster of meanings. They also open up new possibilities for interpretation.

One strategy which I often find productive is to identify the relationship between words with similar sounds and their meanings. This approach combines thoughts and feelings: sound and sense.

In the example that follows, I've selected S as my key sound, in order to unlock the poem in some way, by attending to one element of its sound world.  But I'm sure that you guessed that already, right?
Marconi Wireless (1914)

Let's try this out on a poem called 'Futility' composed by the First World war poet Wilfred Owen (18 March 1893 – 4 November 1918):

(What s-words would you associate with war? perhaps your class could compile a list before they read this poem?)

Move him into the sun--
Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it awoke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds--
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved,--still warm,--too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
--O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all? 

The first thing that you might spot is that it's a Sonnet. Unusually, the poem is presented in two sections, each with Seven lines. Why do you think seven is significant?

Perhaps the most significant alliterative S-words are sun, snow, seeds, star, sleep, seeds, sides, stir, still, sunbeams ...

But note also the s-sounds in France, whispering, fields, its, this, clays, limbs, wakes, rouse, once, so, was, fatuous, earth's ...

The poem's meaning emerges from a variety of oppositions between past, present, and future; between hot and cold; the living and the dead.

The sun is God-like and has the potential for stimulation, animation and creation (in seven days); this moves out into 'seeds' and 'stirs' ... and through 'rouse,' 'whispering' and 'wakes.' This is the poetic of life and arousal. 

In this sense, 'move', is not simply a physical displacement, but perhaps an address to the reader on the possibility of being of being moved - the capacity to experience emotion. But the potential for human warmth of feeling is constantly ebbing away, caught up in the sterility of the poem's title: futility.

Is the whispering a trick? Does the prevalence of s suggest the serpent or the snake (absent from the poem), and the fatal attraction of war? Does this stretch the misreading that is emerging, or does it start to reveal what is masked? Divine light seems like a mockery in the context of widescale madness and universal tragedy. Such, in nihilistic terms, is the futility of life.

Is there a meaning to life? Perhaps we will seek in vain for answers in poems? Is there an answer to war? Doesn't poetry, in fact, thrive on inner conflicts, the tensions in a line, the multiple oppositional meanings at war, all boxed up in a little room, in the stanza, in the sonnet?

Accordingly, the life affirming s-world is balanced by the opposite s-words, such as : sleep, still, snow; this is the poetics of death and extinction.

The first light of morning spins alongside its dark other half: mourning.

Then there are all the half-rhymes that suggest two worlds that don't really fit together. The poem resists harmony and symmetry. Too much formal order, too systematic and rigid an approach, is not what is needed?

The poem has become a cold monument to the living, the supreme art form that mocks life just as it re-animates it in the repetition of reading the words on the page, the lexis of a dead poet.

Like bodies, poems are alive, full-nerved, and warm. But they are also dead things; they are moments eternally frozen in time. That's why the romantic writer John Keats is such a great influence on Wilfred Owen. You recall perhaps the wild frenzy and violence depicted on his Grecian Urn, and its ambiguous first line

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness

Keats imagined a generation wasted by old age; Owen witnessed his generation destroyed by war. Despite finding a deathly cold-pastoral in the immortal object of art, Keat's opted for a judgement that was potentially affirmative

"Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
                Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

Owen is perhaps more bitter. The warmth that was there at the outset becomes ironic with the impossibility, the futility of 'kind' and 'know' that terminate the first half of the sonnet. What does he know?

His poem ends with a question, rather than the answer to the situation that he presents.

But there are also sound possibilities than don't find their way into the poem. Why not compare the poem's s- words with your s- sound expectations. Then formulate your own questions...

For me, there were two s-words that did not find their way into the poem.




Perhaps Owen had his reasons?

© Dr Ian McCormick.
Dr Ian McCormick is the author of The Art of Connection: the Social Life of Sentences
(2013) Also available on Kindle, or to download.

Also worth a look: The PhD Roadmap: A Guide to Successful Submission of your Dissertation / Thesis.

Further Resources

A First World War School Activity Day - Programme and Schemes of Work . A Free Resource.
"Ugly Urchin Alliteration: a Poetry Appreciation Primer." Blog.
"Sound must seem an echo to the Sense!" Blog.