The Grammar of Verse Writing by N. M. Gwynne – This is planned to be Chapter 9 of the next edition of Gwynne’s Grammar.
Time was when even the most ordinary education included training in competence at writing verse. And a very long time it was, covering the entire history of secular literature from three thousand years and more ago right up to well into the twentieth century.
Our ancestors had compelling reasons for insisting that this was an important feature of education. “It is important for us to become acquainted with the laws of writing verse,” says Professor Meiklejohn, in his introduction to his treatment of the subject in his valuable book, The English Language – its Grammar, History and Literature, published towards the end of the nineteenth century. “First, because it enables us to enjoy poetry more. Secondly, it enables us to read poetry better. Thirdly, it shows us how to write verse; and the writing of verse is very good practice in composition – as it compels us to choose the right phrase, and makes us draw on our store of words to substitute and to improve here and there.”
It was even held to be socially useful — for instance, simple messages of thanks can be made more memorable and attractive by putting them into verse, which has the added advantage of showing that trouble has been taken.
It is important to realise that to write verse in the traditional way is within the capacity of everyone who can write at all. What doing this amounts to is expressing what one wishes to say in lines of a rhythm that is regular. This is done by repeating pauses and emphasised syllables in different lines. The mechanism for this – the mechanical arrangement of the pauses and stressed syllables, syllables being the units of verse — is called metre. Often rhymes are used, rhymes being the same sound repeated at suitable intervals ruled by the metre. Most often the rhymes come at the end of the lines, but they can come inside them, as in Noel Coward’s ‘In tropical climes there are certtan times of day…’ and often with rhymes at the end of some or all of the lines. Verse written in metre but without any rhyming is called blank verse.
Poetry is not quite the same thing as verse, and, although everyone capable of writing anything can write verse, by no means everyone can write poetry. Poetry is verse with an elevation and depth of message and a musicality of language which some people are capable of producing and some people are not. Composition which is neither poetry nor verse is called prose.
To such an extent was verse-writing considered to be an indispensable part of any proper education that virtually all of the books on grammar of the past which aimed at any sort of comprehensiveness included a treatment of the subject. I open at random a selection of such books in my shelves: the one by Professor Maeklejohn already mentioned; F.R. Rahtz’s Higher English (1907); J. C. Nesfield’s Manual of English Grammar and Composition (1898, and revised by F. T. Wood in 1964); Lancelot Oliphant’s An English Matriculation Course (1930). They all of them have substantial sections on “Prosody”, the technical name for the writing of verse.
Let it be emphasised: lines in accordance with regular, pre-determined rhythms, sometimes with rhymes at the end of them, were the indispensable basis of all poetry. Without regular metre anything written or spoken simply was not poetry. “Rhythm is not confined entirely to poetry,” says F.J. Rahtz in Higher English. “In poetry, however, the rhythm must be regular.” Even standard dictionary definitions excluded what is called “free verse” from falling into the category of poetry. “Elevated thought or feeling in metrical form” (my emphasis), is how the Concise Oxford Dictionary defined poetry up until 1976.
Then, after thousands of years of universal agreement as to what poetry was, new light at last broke through, we are led to believe. Suddenly everything changed. Led mainly by Ezra Pound in the United States, and quickly followed by T. S. Eliot in England with The Wasteland, both metre and rhyming were abandoned, first by very few and then by more and more until where we are today, when they are scarcely to be seen today in published poetry. Indeed, the last prominent exponent of traditional verse was John Betjeman, Poet Laureate from 1972 until his death in 1984.
Because what I am going to say from this point on is inevitably controversial in today’s world, it is important that I stress, as I have so often thought it necessary to do in these pages, that I am not putting forward personal subjective views of my own. Once again, I am not an innovator. On the contrary, my position throughout this book is that of defender and promoter of what has been shown to work over long periods of time and what is real. Furthermore, once again, I am by no means the only person to have thought this position an important one to defend and promote. In the supposition that doing so will make my efforts to convey the message all the more convincing, I shall at this point let eminent three authorities on literature speak for me.
Bevis Hillier, distinguished scholar, author and journalist, as recently as in the Spectator of 24th November of this year (2012), in a passage especially valuable in that it includes eminent authors who speak with him:
‘For me, Joyce and T.S. Eliot (and Ezra Pound, the evil genius of both) were the men who ruined literature…. Eliot was a formidably good critic but mistook his vocation as a poet and pointed the way for all the drivelling, formless verse by others that the talented poet Peter Henham has called ‘a kind of messed-up prose’…”
‘Messed-up’ is actually a more seemly term than the one that Henham in fact used.
‘…Of Eliot’s verse, G. M. Young wrote that it was “a gash at the root of our poetry”. G. K. Chesterton wrote of free verse: “You might as well call living in a ditch ‘free architecture’.” And W. B. Yeats, a poet far above Eliot, said that “poetry should be a dance in chains” — meaning that some rules and conventions should be adhered to.’
That could hardly be more strongly worded. For a rather gentler look at the subject, I turn to an authority that Hillier has just quoted: G. K. Chesterton, one of the most popular authors of the twentieth century, on religion, politics, criticism of art and literature, even a writer of best-selling fiction (for instance, the Father Brown detective stories), and a poet in his own right. From an article by him called “On Free Verse”, written in 1933, in which he examines a piece of free verse by D. H. Lawrence called “The Argonauts”:
‘The first impression I have is that, while this mode of utterance has become free verse, it has not become free poetry. I mean that it has not produced any purely poetical effect that is freer or wilder or more elemental, magical, or hitherto uncaptured… It seems to me, I confess, that the actual effect of the feeling of liberty is even a certain limpness. The practical problem of free verse [is that] of whether the freedom really does tend to liberty or only to laxity.’
My third offering is from C. S. Lewis, who, remarkably, was a don at both Oxford and Cambridge and an author whose books sold widely whether he was writing literary criticism, novels, poetry, children’s fiction (such as The Chronicles of Narnia) or Christian apologetics (most notably The Screwtape Letters). What he has to tell us on our subject is genuinely breath-taking. From his chapter, “Donne and Love Poetry in the Seventeenth Century” in his book Selected Literary Essays, published by Cambridge University Press in 1969:
‘In discussing Donne’s present popularity, the question of metre forces me to a statement which… will hardly be believed among scholars and hardly listened to by any one else.
‘It is simply this — that the opinions of the modern world on the meter of any poet are, in general, of no value at all, because most modern readers of poetry do not know how to scan.
My evidence for this amazing charge is twofold.
‘In the first place I find that very many of my own pupiIs — some of them from excellent schools, most of them great readers of poetry, not a few of them talented and (for their years) well-informed persons — are quite unable, when they first come to me, to find out from the verse how Marlowe pronounced Barabas or Mahomet… It is easy to find out that they have not got beyond the traditional legal fiction of longs and shorts and have never even got so far: they are in virgin ignorance. And my experience as an examiner shows me that this is not peculiar to my own pupils.
‘My second piece of evidence is more remarkable. I have heard a celebrated belle-lettrist — a printed critic and poet — repeatedly, in the same lecture, so mispronounce the name of a familiar English poem as to show that he did not know a decasyllabic line when he met it. The conclusion is unavoidable. Donne may be metrically good or bad; but it is obvious that he might he bad to any degree without offending the great body of his modern admirers. On that side, his present vogue is worth precisely nothing.’
In other words, even among people reaching the highest level of education today, and all the more so than back in the 1960s when Lewis was writing that, the introduction of free verse and the abandonment of traditional verse has all but universally eliminated people’s ability to follow the rhythm of traditional poetry and to appreciate it – an ability which any child used to have from its earliest years, as a result of reciting, or having recited to it, even such elementary trivia as the nonsense verses of Hilaire Belloc (such as “When George’s Grandmamma was told / That George had been as good as Gold, / She promised in the Afternoon / To buy him an Immense BALLOON.”) and the even more nonsensical verses of A. A. Milne (“Three cheers for Pooh / For who? / For Pooh / Why what did he do? / I thought you knew.”).
No one was better placed to know what he was talking about on that subject than Lewis, And what he said there fits in completely with what I have found in my own teaching and other experience. Under a certain age, the average person today has not the faintest understanding of how traditional poetry works, let alone any understanding of how to compose it.
And it is no exaggeration to say that this is a cultural disaster of gigantic proportions. What has happened is that one of the three great bodies of poetic literature of all time has effectively been completely cut off from those who have inherited it, possibly for ever.
If we need evidence that free verse leaves an unhappy gap in the inmost desires of human beings, and that metrical verse ‘speaks’ to our most deep-seated impulses of all of us, it is to be found in the arena of song-writing by people who want to make good money out of it. While the moderns in poetry were triumphing everywhere during the last century, the popular songwriters were not following their lead. Whether we look at the lyrics written by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Rodgers and Hart and then Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Lionel Bart, Lloyd Webber, The Beatles, or The Rolling Stones or any other of the most successful lyricists of the last sixty or seventy years, everywhere we find the use of rhythm and rhyme. Rhythm and rhyme sell. They are what ordinary people want. They speak to their hearts.
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I have now done my best to persuade my readers of the importance of this subject. It remains to make a small start in filling in yet another gap in today’s education and culture. I shall now give just a few of the most basic rules applying to English verse (not to the verse that was written in classical Greek and Latin, when rhyming had not yet been invented and rhythms were created in a different way), and leave the reader to pursue the subject with the help of one or more of the books listed in “Further Reading” or some other convenient source.
What follows includes a few technical terms to be added to those that I have already given. There is no reason to be daunted by them. Although it is of course more important to understand what each one represents than to remember its name, nevertheless, as with any science — the ordinary use of computers is perhaps the most obvious present-day example — it is as well to learn the names, if only for convenience.
These are the bare elements of English verse:
1. Verse is made up of lines. Each line has a fixed number of accents or stresses (for instance, the accent is on the first syllable of those two words ‘accents’ and ‘stresses’). Each accent has a fixed number of unstressed syllables attached to it, either immediately before it or immediately after it.
2. Each line is divided up into feet. Each foot consists of one accented syllable and either one unaccented syllable or two unaccented syllables.
3. The names of the different kinds of feet:
(i) An accented syllable with a single unaccented syllable in front of it is called an iambus. Examples are “perhaps”, and “inform” and “to be”.
(ii) An accented syllable followed by a single unaccented syllable is called a trochee. Examples are “teacher”, “pupil”, “lesson” and “Stop it!”
(iii) An accented syllable with two unaccented syllables in front of it is called an anapaest. Examples are “understand” and “get it right”.
(iv) An accented syllable followed by two unaccented syllables is called a dactyl. Examples are “difficult” and “easily”.
(v) An accented syllable with one unaccented syllable on either side of it is called an amphibrach. Examples are “Tremendous”, “instruction”, “I want it” and “I’m trying”.
(vi) The spondee consists of two accented syllables in succession. Although they occur often in some other languages, they seldom do in English, the most instances being ‘maintains ’’Amen and ‘Farewell. They can easily be made up of two single-syllable words together, though. Examples: ‘Good night’, ‘Keep left’, ‘Why not?’
4. Generally speaking, one can combine the anapaests with the iambuses and dactyls with trochees, and each of them with themselves alone, but not use any other combinations.
5. The most usual kind of verse in English is iambic verse. There are two kinds of iambic verse:
(i) The iambic tetrameter, consisting of four feet. Example: “I wish to get this point across. / Ignoring metre causes loss.”
(ii) The iambic pentameter, consisting of five feet. Example: “I’ve nearly finished setting out these rules.” The verse of the Shakespeare plays is almost entirely written in this metre.
6. There are very many other kinds of metre, as a glance through any compilation of traditional poetry will show. My purpose here, however, is merely to get the reader going in the right direction, rather than to come close to being exhaustive.
7. An important element of rhythm is what is called the caesura (which means “cut”), sometimes written as two vertical lines next to each other – ll. The caesura is a break, or rest, in any line, and is used at least in every line of four feet or more. Thus in the first half of the first verse of Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shallott”: “On either side ll the river lie / Long fields of barley ll and of rye / That clothe the wold ll and meet the eye / and through the field ll the road runs by…”
8. When lines of verse have regular rhythms, they are said to scan. When we are scanning, we are examining the number of syllable and feet of a piece of verse and identifying where the stresses are. (Our ordinary use of that word when we look intently at someone’s face or the horizon is a corruption of the original use in relation to verse)
9. As already mentioned, much English verse includes rhyming – already defined above — as well as metre. Note there the inclusion of the word ‘sound’ – ‘rhymes being the same sound…’. What follows from that is that, much more than with prose, it is necessary to “read” poetry with one’s ear, so to speak, even when doing so silently.
10. To be satisfactory, rhymes need to meet four conditions:
(i) The rhyming syllable must be accented. “Ring” can rhyme with “sing” but not with “teaching”.
(ii) The sound of the vowel must be the same, producing exactly the same effect on the ear, but not necessarily the spelling. Thus “lose” and “close” are hopeless rhymes, whereas “so” and “though” are completely satisfactory, and also “higher” and “fire”.
(iii) The final consonant must sound the same, though again it need not be spelt the same. Thus “mix” and “tricks” are completely satisfactory.
(iv) The consonant before the vowel must be different, as in “flight” and “height”. Therefore “fare” and “affair” are not satisfactory rhymes.
(v) English is poor in rhymes compared to many other European languages, such as Italian and German. What are called “half-rhymes” are therefore used even by the most admired poets. Examples are “sun” and “gone”, “love” and “move”, and “allow” and “bestow”. Myself, I do not regard half-rhymes as genuinely legitimate, because they are inevitably noticed when they occur, which is bound to be a distraction from what the poet is trying to get across.
11. Verse which scans but has no rhymes is called blank verse. Although, strictly speaking, it is any kind of unrhymed verse.
12. The last element of verse-writing needing a mention is the stanza, more popularly called the verse. A stanza is an ordered division of verse, and can be made up of any number of lines, perhaps most often four. Perhaps the commonest stanza is the four-line one with lines of eight syllable alternating with lines of eight syllables, with the alternate lines rhyming with each other, as in many Church of England hymns.
The selection of the kind of stanza, metrical system and rhyming system for any piece of verse is a matter of considerable importance, requiring careful thought. Different systems produce different emotional effects and moods on the listener and reader, just as in music. The skill at choosing will gradually develop with practice and by examining what poets of the past have done. An example of a perfectly chosen metre is Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha’ (‘Listen to this simple story,
To this Song of Hiawatha!’), its effect being that the water of Lake Superior which is the main setting rippling in the reader’s ears throughout the poem’s many verses.
13. As noted in Chapter 8, an important element in the writing of prose is that that the manner in which the message is conveyed to the reader is that it should be unnoticeable. Drawing attention to the manner of the message will distract attention from the message itself.
In verse this principle does not apply. One of the reasons for putting something into verse is to make the message more vivid and more easy to remember. What might be called “special effects” are therefore desirable – the more the reader admires and enjoys the manner, the more powerful will be the effect of the message.
Here I shall draw attention to just one much-used special effect, leaving readers to consult textbooks and well-known poetry of the past for others. Alliteration is repeating the same sound at the beginning of two or more words. Example: the classic ‘Around the ragged rocks the ragged rascal ran.”
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That is all that I am going to say on the technical side. Now, please, dear readers, get down to some practising — all of you; no exceptions! Everyone can do it and everyone should do it, as I tried to show at the beginning of this chapter.
In your practising:
1. Do not, at first, tackle any subjects of any depth or difficulty. At this stage you should not even consider writing verse on what you most want to write about. Once again, science first, art second. Technique must come first, and only when mastery of technique has been achieved are you ready to move on and develop your style.
2. At this stage in learning the skill, it is probably best to aim at making your verses amusing. In the first place, this forces you to avoid the tackling of serious topics that I have labelled as inappropriate at the beginning. In the second place, genuinely amusing verse – in which one has succeeded in avoiding making a fool of oneself in one’s efforts to be funny — is more difficult to put together than are any other forms of verse, and, once you can manage the more difficult, you are well placed to manage anything easier. In the third place, you are much more likely to know if you have been successful than with any other form of verse. If you submit it for the judgment of others, they will have no difficulty in assessing whether its intended effect has worked with them or is embarrassing.
3. When you have come to the end of your piece of verse, do not stop there. Refine it and refine it and refine it until you believe it to be perfect enough of its kind to need no further refining to improve it. You will find, if you do this conscientiously, that you will gradually find yourself needing to do this less in future efforts at versifying.
Meanwhile, here are some fundamental rules for versification based on a summary that I put together some time ago intended to be useful for pupils I find myself teaching English to.
1. Obviously, the first thing to be selected is the subject. The second is normally the scanning-scheme. The third is the rhyming scheme. In practice, scanning-schemes and rhyming-schemes are probably usually chosen at about the same time.
2. Some verses have every two lines in succession scanning the same. Others have alternate lines that scan the same. More complicated scanning-schemes are of course possible, even much more complicated ones.
3. The scanning does not only consist of getting the same number of syllables in the lines that are being scanned together. Scanning is done in “feet” of either two syllables or three samples each. Normally, each “foot” should have the same number of syllables, with the stress in the same place as in corresponding “foot” in the other line.
4. There should be no false rhythm/scansion – that is, in the “matching” lines, (a) there should be the same number of beats per line, and (b) the stressed syllables should be in the same places.
5. Some verses can have every second line rhyming with its predecessor, others can have every alternate line rhyming, yet others have lines with two or more rhymes inside them. (Cole Porter was notably expert at three-rhyme lines.) And even more complicated rhyming schemes than those are possible. At this stage of trying to acquire mastery, there should be no lines which do not rhyme. For instance the quite common rhyming – for instance, in many Church of England hymns — of only second and fourth lines, but not the first and third lines –is too ‘lazy’ in appearance for our purpose.
6. There should be no false rhymes such as ‘tune’ with ‘moon’, ‘fleece’ with ‘please, ‘move’ with ‘shove’ or ‘bother’ with ‘rather’ (used by Alan Jay Lerner in the Lerner and Loewe musical My Fair Lady). let alone ‘cat’ with ‘mats’, or ‘clever’ with ‘severed’ or even ‘weathered’, and let alone, even more so, ‘clever’ with ‘endeavoured’.
7. A the beginning of your practising, take care to choose rhyme-words that it is easy to find matching rhyme-words for, since otherwise you will be making unnecessary difficulties for yourself.
8. As soon as possible, try to think in lines rather than trying to build up your lines word by word. Once a line has been drafted, then try to improve it by changing individual words in it or the order of the words.
9. There should be no rhymes that are so obvious that, after you have read the last word in one line, you are in no doubt what word the writer is going to use to rhyme with it in a subsequent line. In other words the rhyming should always be at least a little unexpected; otherwise the reader will feel let down.
10. There should be a genuine ‘last line’, a sort of climax. Both the sense of the last line and the rhyme at the end of it should be at least a little better than in any of the earlier lines.
11. The verse or poem should always be perfect, even if, in order to achieve this, it is necessary to make it shorter (i.e. reduce the number of scanning and / or rhyming difficulties).
12. Classic light-verse writers whose work can usefully be studied for the purpose of learning from it are W. S. Gilbert of the Gilbert and Sullivan partnership, from all his successors learn and whom probably none surpassed, Cole Porter and Noel Coward.
I close with an example of a well-known piece of verse by W. S. Gilbert which, in what it sets out to do, could not do it better. Put to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan for the operetta The Mikado, it incorporates as many of the features of verse-writing that I have included in this chapter as is likely to be possible in the four lines. Stanza-construction; metre, including at least one each of iambuses, trochees, anapaests, dactyls, amphibrachs and even spondees; perfect rhyming; caesuras occurring in the middle of feet; surely uniquely spectacular alliteration;, elegant wit, and much else — it should provide instruction and inspiration for beginners and the more advanced alike. First scan it completely in every respect, and then see if you can do better!
To sit in solemn silence in a dull, dark dock,
In a pestilential prison with a life-long lock
Awaiting the sensation of a short, sharp shock
From a cheap and chippy chopper on a big, black block.
Those who end up finding the scanning too difficult are welcome to contact the author of this essay!