Archive for October 11th, 2004

Great verses

When I was in high school, an English teacher I couldn't stand, but who managed to exercise a considerable amount of influence over me, told us that the fourth verse in Shakespeare's 73rd sonnet is considered to be the greatest in English literature:

That time of year thou may'st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold;
Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

I don't remember ever coming across this claim again, but certainly it has captivated people. I was struck then by the sound of the words, although the true meaning of the verse escaped me completely. Or at least the generally accepted meaning. But it wasn't till I was in university, studying Hopkins, that I came to be dazzled by it.

Originally, the 1609 Quarto version had it:

Bare rn'wd quiers, where late the ſweet birds ſang.

The general consensus is that the choirs are the chancels, where the choristers stood. Since the publication of William Empson's Seven Kinds of Ambiguity, many believe that this refers also to the ruins of churches and abbeys after Henry VIII's destruction of monasteries. But I found an interesting discussion at Languagehat of an entry at Eudaemonist, which states that a "quire" was

A set of four sheets of parchment or paper doubled so as to form eight leaves, a common unit in mediæval manuscripts; hence, any collection or gathering of leaves, one within the other, in a manuscript or printed book.

The entry continues:

For Shakespeare […] it’s almost impossible to deny the pun. The yellow leaves lingering on the branches might just as well be the leaves of a book—pages which must be unwritten, of course, when the poet dies (just as the branches ‘where late the sweet birds sang’ become ‘bare ruin’d choirs’). The full quires containing the sonnets, however, will continue their serenade (dare I say, ‘twittering’?) despite the changing seasons, despite death, in a typical declaration of immortality…

When I was studying Hopkins, I had an excellent professor, Joaquin Kuhn, who made prosody fascinating, and as interesting as any other aspect of poetry. (How sad that such a statement should need to be made. He was the only professor I had who spent any time on prosody, and knew more about it than others I've known who call themselves poets.) I also studied Shakespeare's sonnets in one of his courses. I tried applying what I knew to the fourth verse of the 73rd sonnet, and things got very confusing.

Possibly, "rn'wd" was pronounced as two syllables, but I doubt it. Many, many words which seem to be disyllabic are actually monosyllabic in poetry. "Heaven" is the first one that comes to mind. This is why so many editions write it as "heav'n". "Choirs" would also be monosyllabic, as it should always be, so each word in the verse is only one syllable.

As there are only nine words, there are only nine syllables, one too few. (Trying to talk about about feet here is pointless.)

Try to scan it, and your real difficulties begin. There's absolutely nothing iambic about the line. It looks like a classic example of sprung rhythm. If you make the stressed syllables bold, you could get

Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

But I prefer

Bare ruin'd choirs where late the sweet birds sang.

Seven out of the nine syllables are stressed! And twice there are three consecutive stressed syllables. It reminds me of Hopkins, as I imagine him, pounding his fist on the table as he recites

The heart grows wings bold and bolder.

How does Shakespeare manage to depart so dramatically from the prosody of his sonnet without drawing any attention to the fact? Why does the verse work, when it really it shouldn't? I have not, in the over ten years since I first struggled with the question, been able to answer it.

My favourite verse in English literature yields its pleasures more readily, but I never tire of letting it roll of my tongue. It's from Arnold's "Dover Beach", and I quote the entire stanza it's found in.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth's shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

The fifth verse shows what can be done with a language where vowels can have such different sounds, something which cannot be done in Greek, for example. Each vowel in that verse, with the exception of the y in "melancholy", grows more and more expansive, till you swear you can hear the sea retreating and leaving nothing but a vast emptiness.

Say it aloud. Say it again. Slowly.

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