Emily’s Rhythms

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The thing PG really enjoys about doing TPV are some of the amazing comments that visitors post to provide additional information.

Yesterday’s post, It’s Always Time for Meter and Rhyme which brought PG back to Emily Dickinson’s poetry generated two world-class comments from Karen Myers and allynh, each a long-time denizens of the TPV world.

Each of the comments discussed the meter and rhyme of Emily’s poems, but in very different ways.

Karen provided this illustration of iambic tetrameter from Emily’s poem, Because I Could Not Stop for Death:


The lower and upper cases are the unstressed and stressed syllables in this line.

Iambic refers to an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable – daDUM.

Tetrameter refers to how many iambs there are in the line of poetry – six.

Iambic pentameter (five iambs per line) is more frequently found in poetry written in the English language, but Karen’s comment argues that iambic tetrameter (six iambs per line) is a better fit for the way people speak using English.

This is important because in PG’s opinion (and the opinion of many other students of poetry who are smarter/have deeper knowledge than PG), while poetry can be enjoyed by reading it silently, classically, poetry is meant to be spoken aloud and hearing a poem is a better way of enjoying/understanding the poem than just reading it silently.

Music (at least in the Western tradition) is also meant to be played and/or sung and hearing is a better way of enjoying/understanding music than simply reading the words and notes on paper. Western music also has stressed and unstressed notes and often repeats its musical patterns with small or large differences.

Think of the opening sounds of Beethoven’s 5th symphony – da-da-da-DA – repeated thereafter in varying speeds and tonal variations.

allynh pointed out Dickinson’s iambic tetrameter in Because I Could Not Stop for Death meter works with the tune of a long-time favorite song (at least in Texas), The Yellow Rose of Texas.

Here’s an illustration (PG couldn’t get the YouTube video to embed).

2 thoughts on “Emily’s Rhythms”

  1. Yes, Karen’s explanation helps me understand.

    I can’t understand poems, the structure is wrong, they have to be spoken out loud, but if they are said wrong, they’re just mumbling. The Dickinson, “sung” to the Yellow Rose of Texas, make it possible for me to begin to understand what she is saying.

    Have your computer read this poem out loud, and that’s how bland it sounds, yet “sing” the poem and there is “life”.

    This is my letter to the world,
    That never wrote to me, —
    The simple news that Nature told,
    With tender majesty.

    Her message is committed
    To hands I cannot see;
    For love of her, sweet countrymen,
    Judge tenderly of me!

    This is the set from Gutenberg that I use.

    Poems by Emily Dickinson, Three Series, Complete by Emily Dickinson

    The other poet that I am also trying to understand is Robert Frost. His poems are sneaky. He deliberately created poems that on the surface mean one thing, but his real intent is hidden beneath. He is basically laughing at the audience for falling for his tricks.

    Mending Wall and The Road Not Taken are perfect examples of this[1].

    Mending Wall

    There is a lot of nonsense taught about the poem. The Farmer is really saying that the wall needs to be fixed to keep Frost off his land, because “Frost” keeps knocking down the wall on his walks. Frost wants to be able to walk anywhere, yet the Framer needs to keep his cows on his land.

    – “Good fences make good neighbors”

    In other words, stay off my land.

    The Road Not Taken

    – Listen to the sample reading on the Wiki page, another dull boring mumble.

    The Road Not Taken is used as an uplifting poem, but in reality Frost is mocking his friend for not being able to make any choices at all.

    I’m slowly trying to understand the double meanings of his other poems. The Yellow Rose of Texas helps with Frost’s poem, more or less. At least it gives me a tool to start.

    BTW, I use many different browsers, each with a different task. For years I wrote simple code that would automatically open a file in a separate sized window, tall and narrow, so that I could read a Gutenberg text file complete, with the window the width of the text displayed at 110% to have a big enough font.

    As each browser upgraded, my simple code no longer worked, so now I use Google Chrome to read things like Gutenberg text files. I size the window manually, and Chrome remembers the window size and shape for me.

    “And that has made all the difference.”

    See, any browser would work, but I make it seem that Chrome was the best. Sneaky.

    [1] Don’t get me started on this one.

    Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

    He’s riding drunk, and luckily the horse knows the way home.

  2. Thanks for the fulsome remarks, PG, but tetrameter is “4 beats” not “6”. Though it typically manifests in common verse forms as pairs of lines with 4 beats alternating with 3 beats, that’s only because the 4th beat is often fully or partly silent in the 2nd line of the pair (but it still takes up the same amount of time — that’s why it works for music).

    beCAUSE (1) i COULD (2) not STOP (3) for DEATH (4)
    he KIND-(1)ly STOPPED (2) for ME (3). (silence) (4)

    That last line could as easily have been (in a song):
    he KIND-(1)ly STOPPED (2) for ME-(3)oh. (silence) (4)

    Greek: Tetra (c.f., tesseract), Latin: Quadro, Gothic: Fidwor (Germanic vier/four) — these are all cognate (shared proto-Indo-European root).

    6 beats would be HEXameter.

    ALSO… despite the luster of iambic pentameter (5-beat) poetry because of Shakespeare and a few well-famed others, the vast bulk of English verse, going back to Old English Beowulf (which predates the concept of end-rhyme as a form), is 4-beat in nature (though not necessarily iambic).

    Hwæt! We Gardena / in geardagum,
    þeod-cyninga / þrym gefrunon,
    hu ða æþelingas / ellen fremedon.
    Oft Scyld Scefing / sceaþena þreatum

    Each line is 4 stresses, divided at mid-point, the first stressed syllable of the second half-line echoing in its initial sound one or both stresses from the first half-line (a technique called assonance).

    (Lo!) WE…GARD…/..GEAR…DA
    HU..AETH…/ ELL…FREM __________(stressed initial vowels are considered to assonate)
    SCYLD…SCE…/ SCEA ______________ (the “sc” is pronounced “sh”)

    Lo! What! We of the Spear-Danes in days-of-yore
    of the people-kings glory heard,
    how the noblemen valor did.
    Often Scyld son-of-Sceaf from enemies’ troops

    And then there’s Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (Middle English), which is pure (rhyming) tetrameter.

    WHAN that APrill with his SHOURes SOOTe
    The DROGHTE of MARCH hath PERCed to the ROOTe,
    And BATHed every VEYNE in SWICH liCOUR
    Of WHICH VERtu enGENDred is the FLOUR;
    Whan ZEPHirus EEK with his SWEETe BREETH
    InSPIRed HATH in EVEry holt and HEETH
    The TENDre CROPpes, and the YONGe SONne
    Hath IN the RAM his HALF cours yRONNE,

    And then there’s the vast, vast majority of “folk verse”, like the traditional popular ballads (whatever their origins) which are very largely iambic tetrameter, like the other folk-ish forms (hymns, marches) of a similar period. Not to mention Robbie Burns… (Should auld acquaintance be forgot… A man’s a man for all that… — strongly grounded in “folk” verse forms.)

    Unlike, say, the Greek or Latin or Sanskrit forms, English manifests overwhelmingly (if not exclusively) in 4-stress verse lines.

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