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Writing Poetry, Part 3

by The Editor Company   


A very important element of verse is its sound. We can easily see the difference in the effect of this:

Sweet and low, sweet and low,
Wind of the western sea—

and this:

My good blade carves the casques of men
My tough lance thrusteth sure.

Let us see what the sounds are that make the first lines so melodious, and the second so clashing. Notice in the first the consonants; w, one of the most easily spoken sounds, occurs six times; s, four; 1, the liquid, twice; t, a harder sound, but not really harsh, three times; d, a hard sound here somewhat soft­ened by the n preceding it, three times; u four times; and v once: The majority are soft sounds. The vowel sounds are mainly long o and e. In brief, there is not a harsh sound in the two lines; neither are there strong or striking ones; all is as soft and smooth, as a lullaby should be.

Now notice the consonants of the next quotation. Hard c, u, d, g; thr, t, r; such sounds predominate, with m and 1 to mitigate their harshness somewhat. The vowels are mainly short and rather sharp ; short e, a, and u are found in the most important words. Such sounds befit the sense of the lines, imitating the hard clash of steel on steel, as in the lullaby the soft whisper of wind and lapping of water is imitated. This imitation of sounds can be carried to extremes and become mechanical, but some subtle indication of the sounds, as in these examples, is thoroughly artistic.

The writing of sound to emotion is a fine art, and an es­sential of good poetry. Notice the sounds and the feeling of these lines

Traitors—and strike him dead, and meet myself.
Death or I know not what mysterious doom.

Take note here of the hard t, r, k, d and long i sounds in the first words, expressing strife; and the slow m, repeated four times, the d, long e, long o, double o, 1, f, n and wh of the sad­der part.

Now observe the light, tripping effect of this:

Her feet beneath her petticoat
Like little mice stole in and out
As if they feared the light.

One might think this due to the rhythm, but that is the same as in

My good blade carves the casques of men.

It is due instead to the many repetitions of b, combined with short e and i, in a staccato effect, with 1, m, f, s and long e and o to soften them. All the words are ones that may be spoken quickly, unlike "mysterious doom," which one naturally speaks slowly.

Poetry runs the whole gamut of emotions, just as music in­cludes "Lohengrin " and "Florodora," and the sounds of the English language adapt themselves to every variety of fun, pathos, wrath, grief and joy. It is a mistake, however, to think mere sound can take the place of genuine feeling. Mechanical cleverness in handling sounds gives a mechanical effect.

The repetition of one sound in a line, each time at the begin­ning of a word, called alliteration, is frequently employed, and sometimes too frequently. There is extant a set of verses in which every word in each line begins with one letter. It begins:

Austrian army awfully arrayed
Boldly by battle besieged Belgrade,

and continues through the alphabet: an example of alliteration for alliteration's sake. The proper use of alliteration, how­ever, is found in nearly all good poetry, and adds much to its beauty. The following lines are a good example of alliteration well used, but not insistent:

Now if we could win to the Eden Tree when the Four Great Rivers flow.
And the Wrath of Eve is red on the turf as she left it long ago.
And if we could come when the sentry slept and softly survey through
By the favor of God we might know as much—as our father Adam knew.

An important phase of the sound of verse is rhyme. Most verse rhymes, and the rhyming sound is the one that most catches the ear. When a line ends with an accented syllable, as usual in iambic and anapestic rhythm, that syllable alone usually rhymes with a similar one ending another line, thus :

On either side the river lie
Long fields of barley and rye.

Lie and rye are perfect rhymes, because their sound, ex­cept the beginning letter, is identical, although the spelling is different. Rhyme is not a matter of spelling, or "shoes," "goes" and "does" would rhyme. Rhyming words need not, as in this case, be monosyllables; "go" and "below," "set" and "mig­nonette" are perfect rhymes, since the final accented syllables rhyme. This rhyme of final accented syllables is called the strong, or stergle, rhyme, and sometimes the masculine rhyme.

Trochaic rhythm, on the other hand, ends with a weak syllable following a strong one, and both must rhyme, as in this :

Willows whiten, aspens quiv'-er,
Little breezes dusk and shiv'-er.

This is called the weak, double, or feminine rhyme, and is sometimes used as a variation with iambic and anapestic rhythm.

Dactylic lines, as we have noted, seldom end with a dactyl, but when they do, the whole foot should rhyme, as in this:

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care,
Fashioned so slenderly.

This is called triple rhyme.

Besides the regular rhymes at the end of lines, we sometimes find a word within the line, usually in the middle, rhyming with one at the end, thus :

It's North you may run to the rime-ringed sun.

The occasional use of this internal rhyme gives a fine swing to the line and quickens its motion.

Rhyming words should be, as far as possible, words of melodious, strong or catching sound according to the effect de­sired, and of significant meaning. Beautiful words should be sought and trite, commonplace ones avoided.