Friday, 22 October 2010

For John Milton, Concerning the Barbarous Nature of Rhyme. A Retort.

A shadow passed across the world, as those who saw can tell,
The day that, with a deaf'ning crash, Rome faltered once and fell;
And Cicero turned in his tomb, but no verse from him came;
Catullus' lyrics, like his corpse, grew cold; he said the same.
And eastwards, where an emperor yet sat upon a throne,
Men chose words for precision, and left their art alone.
Thus Homer's six dactylic feet, whose sound would bless the ear,
Were saved and savoured, handed on, but no one wrote their peer;
The Versifiers left their pens and gave up prosody,
But Providence was moving, moving imperceptibly;
Soon from the mist-filled valleys of the Frankish realm there came
A rumour of a righteous king, one worthy of the name;
From out his mouth came eloquence in Frank and Roman words,
More earthy than the badger's lair yet lofty as the birds;
And many men then came to him to see if it were so
An emperor was in their midst like those of long ago.
He called to him the artisans, the skilled of mind and hand
And then like falcons sent them forth, that all throughout the land
His tribe might feel transcendent warmth, with vision magnified
By craftsmanship's forgotten fruits, exceeding ancient pride.
Then men recalled magnificence, exulting to regain
A past surpassed by things within the mind of Charlemagne;
And in the days to come, though some achievements came to naught,
The sparks remained, and others fanned to flame what he had wrought-
In later years, when tongues were changed and others were no more,
In newbuilt towns were heard the sounds of those called troubadour.
A troop of trav'lling wordsmiths were these Carolingian sons,
Each man a gold-tongu'd Orpheus who captivates then runs,
And each one left behind him sheer enchantment when he'd gone,
A ling'ring vision built of lyric verse of Occitan:
Of ladies unattainable the lowly fain would woo,
Of cunning foxes, Roland's horn, of tales told anew
Of Arthur and his knights- these were the subjects of their song.
It broke upon the people like the sounding of a gong.
And ere long this unprecedented, mesmerising style
Had found a place among the race of England's scepter'd isle;
In noble rhyme did pilgrims wend their way to Canterbury,
In self-same form was one knight sworn to uphold cortaysie
While seeking for a man of green that he had seemed to slay
Whom he must journey far to find, and find ere Christmas Day;
The lilting sound of English words, their rhythm and their shape,
Made drunk the cream of England like the crushing of the grape;
Their interlocking sounds, like jigsaw pieces, like a jar
And lid did show our tongue's true worth thence in perpetua;
The very ideal Form of verse was this, its hard-won peak! -
Thus English made its own that which was sought in vain by Greek.
And all the poets gathered round and marvelled at the sight,
That such a humble language should ascend to such a height.
As for a hoard of scattered jewels, they grabbed and grasped around
That each might show his peers his own rendition of the sound;
The Muses smiled as they surveyed this thing they had achieved
And blessed the poets, who in turn revered what they'd received
And handled with grave reverence this sacred gift of rhyme,
As circumspect as priests, or actors in a pantomime,
Yet joyful with an almost Dionysian delight-
They came before an altar every time they sat to write.
So Spenser wrote in wonder of his virgin fairy queen,
The Bard improved on Petrarch in ways hitherto unseen,
And Robert Southwell's verses, which he offered with his blood,
Were kept by grateful hands the day his gore was mixed with mud;
Then Donne, late as a cleric or as first in passion's heats,
Did sigh to write of fleas and maps and various conceits,
And Pope and Dryden tried their hand at epic; with respect
Translating from the masters who were mouldy with neglect,
But reasoning such brilliant verse could yet more brightly shine,
To set it off, they placed it in a rhyming dual line.
Then lest the rhyme grow hoary with convention as with age,
Will Wordsworth and Sam Coleridge began another stage-
For rhyme can work as epic but is not thereby confined-
It can appeal to both the learned and the simple mind.
Achilles is no more fit subject than a man and son
Discussing which place they prefer- this or a different one.
But while these poets wrote their works and all the Muses smiled,
A figure in a darkened spot was sulking like a child,
A man apart whose hardened heart did curse them as uncouth
For writing rhyme, which he believed the realm of wayward youth
And Philistines- he far surpassed such unsophisticates:
"Blank verse," he said, "is better for our tongue's inherent traits."
And so he cursed the verse that rhymed, his face towards the wall;
Its very sound was bitter to his ear, like bilious gall.
The poets disregarded him and kept on just the same.
"He is," they said, "a harmless man- John Milton is his name."

No comments: