Saturday, March 21, 2009

Playing the Sing-Song Card

It's no trump. Sometimes verse that is too metrically regular is a blemish, sometimes it's just what you want. Witness nursery rhymes, Donald Hall's Goatfoot par excellence (cf Milktongue and Twinbird). Or, if that's too childish—Jack not wishing to be christened "along with other babies," as we'll read next month—consider the third part of Auden's "In Memory of W.B. Yeats," which begins

Earth receive an honoured guest;
William Yeats is laid to rest:
Let the Irish vessel lie
Emptied of its poetry.

continuing similarly for eight more stanzas. In other words, metrical regularity is also desirable in a chant. (It's a droll peculiarity of contemporary poets that even when they deprecate meter they'll boringly chant their "plainsong" to the crack of doom!)

And now a little story illustrating the virtues of practical intelligence. Years ago I was a stage manager for a production of Yeats' "On Baile's Strand." The casting is nearly all male, warriors and chieftains like Cuchulain and Conchubar. But in the middle of the play some women are brought in to sing a rhyme that will drive out deceit and keep men's oaths. The spell is some forty lines and ends

Therefore in this ancient cup
May the sword-blades drink their fill
Of the home-brew there, until
They will have for masters none
But the threshold and hearthstone.

We were having the women read together sometimes, sometimes apart. On one run-through, one of the women read the last five lines. She … actually all of them were education majors, in English, and were quite insistent on their "knowing" that one shouldn't stop at the end of a line if the sense carried forward (what Touchstone might call the Enjambment Expeditious). I objected that this would break the spell. We were disputing over such matters when the director simply re-assigned the women's parts so that they all read the last five lines together. Voilà! Speaking together, like good horses in train, they read metrically and comfortably paused at each line's end.


DCSteve1441 said...

Tim, thanks very much for this and your other new postings. I truly admire your ability to be prolific and thoughtful at the same time, a combination far too rare. :-)

I particularly relished the story about your theatrical experience, and would like to hear more about that. It called to mind a (tangentially related at best) contention I once heard: one can recite any limerick to the tune of any Gilbert & Sullivan patter song. I haven't tried it, and make no claims it is accurate, but it wouldn't surprise me if it were true as to the rhythm of the lines.

Tim said...

Thank you for your kind words (and for responding into the vacuum of cyberspace)! Limericks can be variously analysed but at a minimum they involve ternary meters. Ko-Ko's patter song from The Mikado ("As some day it may happen that a victim must be found") is binary (iambic heptameter, to be exact) so there's no chance of singing a limerick to it. Ditto for the Major General's "I am the very model of a modern major general" (binary again, iambic octameter—The Pirates of Penzance). The Lord Chancellor's patter song ("When you're lying awake with a dismal headache, and respose is taboo'd by anxiety" from Iolanthe) is ternary and parts of a limerick could be fitted to parts of its tune. The fitting, however, would never be satisfactory because the limerick consists of five lines of three beats each except for the third and fourth lines (two beats each). Thus, the middle three lines would fit the seven-beat line of the Lord Chancellor's patter song but then you would awkwardly have two three-beat lines left over. Well (whew! — "ditto ditto my song"), the next time anyone quotes you this bit of green-room lore, challenge them to prove it. What ham could leave that field unassayed!