No.8 - April 2020
I'll Be Home Saturday Night
I first became aware of a certain metrical form in reading W. H. Auden. It’s there in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”: Earth, receive an honoured guest: William Yeats is laid to rest. Let the Irish vessel lie Emptied of its poetry. Time that is intolerant Of the brave and the innocent, And indifferent in a week To a beautiful physique, Worships language and forgives Everyone by whom it lives; Pardons cowardice, conceit, Lays its honours at their feet. Time that with this strange excuse Pardoned Kipling and his views, And will pardon Paul Claudel, Pardons him for writing well. In the nightmare of the dark All the dogs of Europe bark, And the living nations wait, Each sequestered in its hate; Intellectual disgrace Stares from every human face, And the seas of pity lie Locked and frozen in each eye. Follow, poet, follow right To the bottom of the night, With your unconstraining voice Still persuade us to rejoice. With the farming of a verse Make a vineyard of the curse, Sing of human unsuccess In a rapture of distress. In the deserts of the heart Let the healing fountains start, In the prison of his days Teach the free man how to praise. Or in “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love”: Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm; Time and fevers burn away Individual beauty from Thoughtful children, and the grave Proves the child ephemeral: But in my arms till break of day Let the living creature lie, Mortal, guilty, but to me The entirely beautiful. Auden was far from the first poet to use it, and his were quite possibly not the first poems I ever read to use it, but they were the first ones that struck me. They must have come at a time when I was beginning to appreciate the possibilities of meter, its fluidity and flexibility. Not long before that, a couple of itinerant folksingers had pointed out to me that I sang everything with the same plodding, monotonous rhythm. They suggested that in singing “900 Miles,” I change the line “If this train runs me right, I’ll be home tomorrow night” to “If this train runs me right, I’ll be home Saturday night,” to force myself to vary the rhythm. At the time, as I recall, I tried and was unable to break free from the monotony of my plodding rhythms, but the lesson stuck, because I still remember it. And Auden’s line puzzled and fascinated me. I had never heard the term “catalectic trochaic tetrameter,” and in fact I didn’t hear it until many years later, when I asked on Facebook what this line is called, and was given the answer by R. S. “Sam” Gwynn, who knows everything. At that particular time, I was having trouble with the catalytic converter in my car’s exhaust system, which only added to the confusion and exhausted me. But they are different words. “Catalytic” means “causing a catalyst,” which is defined as “a substance that enables a chemical reaction to proceed at a usually faster rate or under different conditions,” and is therefore irrelevant to our discussion. However, this is poetry, where nothing is as irrelevant as it seems, and milk can be very much like silk. But we know about that, if you read my last column. “Catalectic” means “lacking one syllable in the last foot,” and it has meant exactly that since its first recorded use in 1589—talk about plodding regularity. So that’s all Auden was doing—writing trochaic tetrameter lines that ended one syllable too soon. But I didn’t know that then, and I’m glad I didn’t, because it made me puzzle over the lines, trying to unlock the secret of their fascination. I could tell they were four-stress lines. But what kind of four-stress lines? Were they truncated iambics or truncated trochees? If you assume that a syllable has been cut off the beginning, this is a regular iambic line: EARTH, / reCEIVE / an HON / oured GUEST: Try filling out the iamb, and it still works, maybe not quite as well: Will EARTH / reCEIVE / an HON / oured GUEST? But it’s definitely better than making it regular trochees: EARTH, re / CEIVE an / HONoured / PATron That sounds clunky and wrong, to my ear, anyway. You may disagree, and that’s actually the point of this whole column, but I’ll get to that. OK, how about the next line? Let’s try filling in either end of it: WILLliam / YEATS is / LAID to / REST, sir or Sir WILL/ iam YEATS / is LAID / to REST. I suppose it could work either way, and neither way works as well as the line the way Auden wrote it, but for me there’s more power in rolling out those trochees. Now let’s listen again to the two lines together: Earth, receive an honoured guest: William Yeats is laid to rest. You don’t have to shoehorn in a “Saturday night” to make these lines feel different rhythmically, even though they’re the same metrically. But knowing that they were same, and that there was a name for this sort of line, led me to examine them further, and try to understand to my satisfaction how they worked. And I began to think, what if they’re not exactly either? What if the truncated foot (or, as we now know, the catalectic foot) came in the middle of the line? WILLliam / YEATS / is LAID / to REST. So the line pivots—begins with a trochee, then turns and becomes iambic. Or it could pivot later in the line: AND will / PARdon / PAUL / ClauDEL, So the catalectic foot becomes a catalytic converter, a metric foot that becomes substance that enables a reaction to proceed under different conditions. Try it yourself. You’ll hear the lines differently from the way I do. You probably already disagree with me. But you’ll be listening, and maybe gaining a new appreciation for the suppleness and subtlety of metric verse. There’s something particularly magical about these truncated tetrameter lines, which may be why Shakespeare so often assigns them to his magical creatures, like the fairies in Midsummer Night’s Dream: Captain of our fairy band, Helena is here at hand, And the youth, mistook by me, Pleading for a lover’s fee. Shall we their fond pageant see? Lord, what fools these mortals be! Or Macbeth: Fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron boil and bake. Eye of newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, Adder’s fork and blind-worm’s sting, Lizard’s leg and owlet’s wing, The catalectic lines are bracketed by the full trochaic tetrameter of “Double, double, toil and trouble, / Fire burn and cauldron bubble. Blake invokes some truncated magic: What the hammer? what the chain, In what furnace was thy brain? What the anvil? what dread grasp, Dare its deadly terrors clasp! For me, grateful to know the correct terminology, I’m still happy to think of the form as truncated iambs and truncated trochees, or tetrameter lines with a truncated pivot. But if you’d like a little more correct terminology, here’s one I just discovered while googling “catalectic” to make sure I had it spelled right: You can turn the emphasis around, and make the lines acephalous iambic tetrameter.
©2020 Tad Richards
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