Friday, January 29, 2010

Who will denounce that criminal, Rhyme? - the ridiculous Bysshe Vanolis

Or "Ô qui dira les torts de la Rime?", which is a line from Paul Verlaine's "Art Poétique" (1884).*

Emily of Evening All Afternoon found The City of Dreadful Night maybe just a little bit ridiculous.  The rhyme grated on her.  Plus, the poem is ridiculous.

One reason I reread the poem so quickly was that I had a similar reaction, especially when I had just started it.  It took a certain adjustment in my angle of attack to really incorporate or absorb the rhyme.  Tennyson's In Memoriam (1850) required a similar little twist.  Serious subjects treated at length demand, in English, blank verse, right?  Or free verse.  Not rhyme.

Is this just Modernist or Miltonic prejudice?  I think not.  Rather, it's the penetrating effect of ridicule and parody.  It's "On a log \ Expiring frog" and the "Ode to Stephen Dowling Bots, Deceased," the reaction to a certain cloying Victorian sensibility.  Rhyme + serious subject = doggerel.  Even in Tennyson or Vanolis, even after my mental adjustment, there were rhyming pairs that really clanked together, rhymes that seemed lazy or in questionable taste: "mountains \ fountains," "casement \ basement," to pick a couple from early in The City of Dreadful Night.

Thomson's use of rhyme is pretty sharp, generally, and his use of form is varied.  The parodic response to Dante I mentioned a couple days ago is actually in rhyming triplets, a parody of Dante's terza rima.  Canto IV, a journey through a terrifying wasteland, is in a strange nine-line stanza that I don't recognize.  Maybe it's a parody, too, of Spenser?  It's also like a ballad, with the extra first line and the closing couplet repeated in every stanza:

As I came through the desert thus it was,
As I came through the desert: All was black,
In heaven no single star, on earth no track;
A brooding hush without a stir or note,
The air so thick it clotted in my throat;
And thus for hours; then some enormous things
Swooped past with savage cries and clanking wings:
                   But I strode on austere
                   No hope could have no fear.

Like a good ballad, the emotional effect builds with every repetition.

Any work, fiction or verse, that attempts the sublime risks the ridiculous.  Often, they are one and the same - the sublime sometimes requires the ridiculous.  I'm thinking of Thomson's predecessor, the death-soaked Thomas Lovell-Beddoes, or Thomas Bernhard's novels, or John Webster's plays.  Since we don't really live in those worlds, most of us, I hope, they can seem absurd.  Bracing, but absurd.  One reason I wanted to mention Thomson's letters to George Eliot is that they indicate that the poet had some self-awareness of his ludicrousness.  Maybe not a lot, but some.

I should point out that Paul Verlaine's attack on rhyme is just a gag.  Verlaine, like Baudelaire, always rhymes.  I can say, with the confidence of ignorance, that he must be among the deftest rhymers in French poetry.  He makes it all look so natural, like it's just a heightened version of ordinary writing, like the rhyme words just happen to have fallen in the right spots.  Verlaine has his own fair share of poems of anguish and despair, all rhyming.

* Translation courtesy of Martin Sorrell, in Paul Verlaine, Selected Poems, Oxford World's Classics, 1999.  Norman Shapiro, in One Hundred and One Poems by Paul Verlaine, University of Chicago Press, 1999, has "Rhyme! Who will its infamies revile?"


  1. Ooh, very nice point about the sublime sometimes requiring the ridiculous. As I'm currently taking a break from reading and linking a million Woolf reviews, it seems apropos - she's another one for whom the two ideas were closely linked.

    As you post more and more fragments of the poem, I realize that the rhyming is actually a lot more varied and complex than I realized at first. It's growing on me...

  2. You're quite right about Verlaine. Apollinaire, too, rhymes a good deal and you scarcely notice. And Mallarmé. Lovely stuff.

  3. I think I've mentioned that I count Woolf (the critic) as one of the primary influences on Wuthering Expectations. She takes literature seriously, yet sees the ridiculous side. How about continuing the Woolf readalong with The Second Common Reader, hmm?

    I hope people like Verlaine, and Mallarmé and so on. There's more on the way here, I predict. I have to cleanse my palate occasionally from that Scottish oatmeal.

  4. I like Verlaine and not many people read him now. Will you be looking at Rimbaud? I do hope so. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on him.

  5. Rimbaud? I think so. If I don't get worn out, I hope to read, soon, Rimbaud, Corbière, Laforgue, and Mallarmé, plus get a better sense of what Hugo's verse was like. I'm reading Verlaine now and "covered" Nerval and Gautier and Baudelaire last summer.

    Who am I omitting that I should not? It looks like there's a big enough chronological gap between this group and the next generation - Appolinaire and Valery and the Surrealists and so on - that Mallarmé would be a good place to pause for a while.

    Advice welcome!