Sunday, 10 October 2010

Blame it on the boogie - part two

In the previous posting, I promised some examples of the importance of rhythms and how they work, but a list of them would be tedious, so let’s focus on just a few. In fact, I’ve taken them all from poetry but I’m quoting them as prose so that your reading isn’t influenced by them being chopped into shorter lines. I want the rhythms to do all the work unaided. Rather like this:
There was a young man from Dundee
Who was stung on the arm by a wasp.
When asked if it hurt
He said, ‘Not very much.
It can do it again if it likes.’

Any effect those lines have is almost entirely down to rhythm. So, for the first example, just the magnificence of rhythms which give the meaning even greater resonance – lines from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great. A courtier tells the king ‘Your majesty shall shortly have your wish, and ride in triumph through Persepolis.’ To which the king replies ‘And ride in triumph through Persepolis! Is it not brave to be a king, Techelles? Usumcasane and Theridamas, is it not passing brave to be a king, and ride in triumph through Persepolis?’ I always find that to be a ‘hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck’ job.

But it’s not just noble rhythms that work. Othello was a great orator, with lines such as ‘Farewell the neighing steed, and the shrill trump, the spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife; the royal banner, and all quality, pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!’

But his self-assurance and conceit break down when Iago suggests that Desdemona’s playing away, and he loses control. ‘It is not words that shake me thus. Pish! Noses, ears, and lips. Is't possible?—Confess—handkerchief!—O devil!’

So rhythm works not just through its own power and consistency but when it’s broken and overwhelmed. French classical drama, for example, was highly formal. It aimed to ape what it thought Greek tragedy was like, so it was written in Alexandrines – rhyming couplets of 12 syllables, with a caesura (a pause) coming in the middle of each line and a sort of mini-caesura after the 3rd and 9th syllables. The example usually quoted of the form at its best is one of Racine’s. I’ll mark the caesuras with /:
Arian/e, ma soeur,// de quel am/our blessée
Vous mourût/es aux bords //où vous fût/es laissée.
(Literally translated: ‘Ariane, my sister, wounded by love, you died on the shore on which you were abandoned’ – a translation which is an example of very bad rhythm, completely unsuited to what’s being expressed.)

As well as being great poetry, this formal structure, including the rhyme scheme, is the way elevated individuals speak. All the main characters in classical tragedy are high-born – kings, princesses, generals, etc.. They have dignity, poise and their control of language is a mark of their superiority, elegance and social standing. If you like, it’s another of the masks they wear. So when they seem to stumble over syllables, you know the ordinary mortal under the mask is having trouble suppressing baser instincts or just plain human emotions.

My favourite Racine play is Andromaque and there’s a great example there of how rhythm does the poet/dramatist’s work for him. The plot is complicated but essentially it’s Oreste loves Hermione, who loves Pyrrhus, who loves Andromaque, who still loves her dead husband. So, not much chance of a happy ending.

At one point, Hermione makes a long passionate speech outlining how Pyrrhus’s rejection of her has brought shame on her family. She ends it by urging Oreste to go and assassinate her enemy and not come back until he’s ‘covered with the blood of the infidel’ (i.e. Pyrrhus). That’s how, she says, he can be sure of having her love.

So off he goes. When he sees her again, he makes a long, noble speech full of elevated imagery and awe at the enormity of events, declares his love for her and ends by saying that he’s killed Pyrrhus. She’s horrified at the news and immediately rejects him in a short speech where she barely maintains control of her temper (and the lines she speaks). It ends with the words ‘Qui te l’a dit?’ (Who told you to do that?) It’s a brusque, very ordinary question with no thought of being noble, and it’s up to Oreste to finish the line with the correct number of syllables, the rhyme, and so on. But, of course, he’s completely shattered by her words, and the man who’s just made that great rolling speech, is reduced to near incoherence. The complete couplet goes as follows:

Qui te l’a dit?
................‘O dieux! Quoi! Ne m’avez-vous pas
Vous-meme, ici, tantot, ordonné son trépas?
(Who told you to do that?
........................Oh God! What! Didn’t you
Yourself, here, just now, order his death?’)

Compare that with the beautiful fluid couplet I quoted earlier. There’s no rhythm, no regular pauses, no flow. The words this time are simple, desperate attempts by the characters to make sense of things but the broken rhythms show the crumbling of their masks. The glorious noble exteriors fall away to reveal the lost, unhinged people inside them. Rhythm and control give way to chaos.

So, back to my point, read your stuff to check that the rhythms are working for you. And they don’t always have to be smooth, regular pulses. Breaking the rhythm is just as effective. Get it right and you could be as good as Racine.


  1. Fascinating stuff, Bill. I knew that using short or broken sentences heightens tension, but I'd never really stopped to think about why, or the way it breaks up the rhythm, or why breaking up the rhythm should heighten tension. Much food for thought.

  2. Yes, Fiona, in a way it's like the constant fussing over whether we're allowed to 'break the rules' of such things as grammar or the dreaded POV - breaking rules is fine as long as you know and respect them. Broken rhythms only work if there's a rhythm to break in the first place.

  3. Very instructive, and as Fiona says ... fascinating. It always helps to make sure the underlying cadence in one's work makes sense before stepping outside those boundaries.

  4. Beautifully stated, Bill. I couldn't agree with you more about rhythum.