Having written a post on the poetry of Robert Frost, I thought it might be as well to bone up on the subject of poesy a little more.
Living, as I do, in a house brimming with nerdy tomes, I had a selection to choose from. I could read lots of poetry, or I could read lots about poetry.
I decided to read about.
Living, as I do, in a house brimming with nerdy tomes, I had a selection to choose from. The Ode Less Travelled, by Stephen Fry? Perhaps some Leavis, or Aristotle’s Poetics? Johnson’s Lives of the English Poets? Robert Graves’ The Crowning Privilege or The White Goddess? Possibly Seamus Heaney’s magisterial The Redress of Poetry?
I settled down with something more severe. The Art of Versification and the Technicalities of Poetry, by R F Brewer, B.A. That’s right: he puts his Bachelor of Arts qualification down on the front cover and the title page. We’re in good hands.
This is a stern book. You know more or less what you’re in for from the first paragraph of the preface:
‘The chief aim of this book is to instruct. Those for whose use it is primarily designed, form that large and increasing number of the youth of both sexes, whose cultivated taste leads them to the study of our poets, and often, by original verse-making, to their imitation.’
Love that ‘of both sexes’. There’s nothing better than an obvious nod to gender equality if you want to reveal that you’re sexist.
It must be said – and soon – that Brewer knows his stuff: did you know that tragedy is derived from the Greek – τραγωδία: tragodía – and literally means ‘the goat song’? Bet you didn’t. He also knows all there is to know about the technicalities of poetry. He’s marvellous on verse forms, meter – all the nuts and bolts.
But he turns what is the finest, most underwear-moisteningly beautiful form of language usage into a spiky maze of regulations and prejudices.
Strangely, the prejudices save the book. But not the prejudices about poetry.
Feast your eyes:
‘Sheridan, in his “Art of Reading,” says that if the first thirteen lines of the Paradise Lost were printed as prose and read by some one who had never seen the poem, they would be read as prose. We are certain that the judgement of most educated men would condemn this assertion. As well might we take the opinion of a Chinaman upon one of Beethoven’s sonatas as of an illiterate person upon a question of verse and prose.’
Sorry, but we just have to see that again:
‘As well might we take the opinion of a Chinaman upon one of Beethoven’s sonatas as of an illiterate person upon a question of verse and prose.’
Do you hear a little ‘click’ at the end of that sentence? It was the sound of Brewer putting the cap back onto his fountain pen with a satisfied flourish. ‘Case,’ he was clearly thinking to himself, ‘closed.’
I’d wade through endless lists of metric feet and Brewer’s dull pronouncements on which particular poem in English represents, for him, the acme of its form. And I’d wade through it just for a sentence like that.
I had to, of course, but tell me it’s wasn’t worth it.
And isn’t ‘the Paradise Lost’ marvellous? Oh, how I love a snob.
You can track down a copy of Brewer’s inimitable guide to the ars poetica quite easily: I’d recommend AbeBooks as a sure-fire starting point.
You won’t regret owning it. And if you ever do, to get rid of the feeling you just have to turn to page one hundred and thirty nine and read ‘As well might we take…’