in verse # 31 : dark Satanic mills

If I were to tell you that I was writing a parody bent on displaying a hacker’s mindset, based on Ira Gershwin’s “I got rhythm,” and that it began

I got rhythm                                                                                                                                 Algorithm                                                                                                                                      I got rhythm                                                                                                                                 Who could ask for anything more?

would you revise the title for this post to “dork Satanic mills”?  What if my parody morphed into

I got rhythm                                                                                                                                  Al Gore rhythm                                                                                                                             I got rhythm                                                                                                                                 Who could ask for anything more?

would that incline you to a more charitable view?  Would you even notice the change in rhythm in the second line with the change in wording?

Of course you would, because the stresses in the first word falls on “al” and “rith,” while in the second case, the stresses fall on the first three syllables of the line, with a slightly stronger stress in “Gore” than “Al” because the former requires a diphthong and the latter does not.  It is with these subtleties of poetic rhythm that Derek Attridge is concerned in The rhythms of English poetry.  He draws his examples from “a single remarkably homogeneous body of poetry:  the main tradition of regular accentual-syllabic verse in Middle and Modern English.”  In the analysis that follows, Attridge asserts, “my interest is primarily in the singleness of this metrical tradition — in the capacity, that is, of the modern reader to engage directly with rhythmic forms produced over the past six hundred years….”  That means that he ignores “some of the most picturesque byways of English versification, such as syllabic verse, classical imitations, concrete poetry, and the metrical experiments and theories” [1]  of wanderers in those byways, such as William Blake.  Or rather, he ignores Blake’s experiments with a long line in his later poems.

Attridge expounds on these basic matters by way of one further distinction, between rhythm and meter — or rather somewhat refuses to, saying “I have no wish to differentiate between them by means of simple definitions.  The connotations which they carry are basically those of common usage…” arguing that it is the purpose of the book so to do.  But he does say that, if “obliged to be more explicit, I would hazard the assertion that rhythm … has special reference to patterns apprehended through ordinary habits of perception, whereas metre is dependent on habits acquired through familiarity with a particular tradition of verse.”[2]

I am still reading Attridge, and since I began reading his second book[3] on the topic first — and both appear to be out-of-print [and are both hard to come by, and dear] — I will resort to repeating the description of the theory as it was first called to my attention in The Milton encyclopedia (and first referred to in the 29th of these posts).  In his fine article on Milton’s prosody, John Creaser describes how Milton was able to work so well within the conventions of blank verse.  Creaser begins by summarizing Attridge’s description of “the prevailing norms” of speech rhythm in English:

Fundamental to the rhythm of English speech are (1) isochrony — the tendency, allowing for sense “breathings,” to perceive stressed syllables as falling at equal intervals of time; and (2) duple movement — the tendency for stressed and unstressed syllables to alternate.[4]

This is why Attridge does not go back beyond Middle English for his examples.  As we have seen, the Anglo-Saxon poets had 4 stresses in a line, and anywhere from none to 6 or 7 unstressed syllables.  This is the reason poems of the alliterative revival are not all truly alliterative (with the poems of the Gawain poet coming closest):  English had lost its inflections, tied itself to word order, and opened its word-hoard for a great influx.  Creaser then discusses the variation possible in the duple movement, which is where a “foot”-based metric ties itself in knots, especially in trying to account for the variations in the feet actually used by poets.  This is his summary:

Attridge has shown that all the variety in five centuries of regular iambics is released by only three deviations from the basic duple alternation: (1) Demotion:  when three stresses occur in sequence, careful utterance gives the second the time of a stress, but slightly less emphasis (as in “good white wine,” where “white” would only take, or be felt as taking, full stress to mark a distinction from, say, “good red wine”).  (2) Promotion:  in a sequence of three non-stresses, the second is given a little extra weight or time (at PL 4.74, “Infinite wrath, and infinite despair,” the second “infinite” is felt as drawn out by a secondary stress on its final syllable).  (3) Pairing:  where only two stresses are adjacent and demotion is therefore impossible, an iambic line is thrown off balance; the imbalance is kept as brief as possible by immediately following or preceding the pair of stresses with two (and only two) non-stresses….  A demoted syllable is a stress that is not a metrical beat (that is, one of the five structural emphases in a pentameter); a promoted syllable is a beat without being fully stressed; a pairing comprises two beats and two off-beats.[5]

Given that sketch, you might expect a simple discussion of Blake when Attridge summons him.  It is not so, because Attridge discusses Blake’s poem “LONDON” (one of the Songs of Experience), in “Part Four: Practice” of The rhythms of English poetry, chapter 9, section 4, “Emphasis and Connection.”  He is discussing a particular repeated rhythmic pattern, and given Blake’s long history with the long line, Attridge has a generous amount to say about the metrical poems.  This is the poem “LONDON:”

I wander thro’ each charter’d street                                                                                                Near where the charter’d Thames does flow                                                                                   And mark in every face I meet                                                                                                          Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,                                                                                                                In every Infant’s cry of fear,                                                                                                            In every voice, in every ban,                                                                                                            The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.

How the Chimney-sweeper’s cry                                                                                                    Every black’ning Church appalls;                                                                                                      And the hapless Soldier’s sigh                                                                                                            Runs in blood down Palace walls.

But most thro’ midnight streets I hear                                                                                           How the youthful Harlot’s curse                                                                                                       Blasts the new born Infant’s tear,                                                                                                    And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse.[6]

The poem is written in a four-stress line, but Attridge descries in the third and fourth stanzas a pattern of rhythm in “two phrases characterised by three strong beats alternating with single offbeats, a predominantly falling movement, and a possessive construction matched in a particular way to this rhythmic pattern”[7], i.e. “chimney sweeper’s cry” and “hapless soldier’s sigh[8], about which Attridge says “Rhythm, syntax and rhyme all contribute to the equation of two phenomena which might seem to have no logical connection.  In the next stanza these phrases are echoed by a third, to bring into the same sphere another form of exploitation”[9]:  “youthful harlot’s curse”, which leads in the next line to another instance relating “these images of suffering to a kind of sorrow considered by the society under attack to be totally unrelated to and unaffected by them:”[10]new born Infant’s tear” (which, believe me, seems to run in blood down palace walls — we are hosting a newborn grandson, and there are times when he seems inconsolable).  This is a rhythmic motif which is echoed in the last image of the poem, which retains the connection of rhyme, although the possessive construction is gone:  “plagues the Marriage hearse” (talk about two irreconcilable images yoked by violence together).  Attridge concludes “Rhythmic echoes no doubt work subliminally for the most part, and only when they are made obvious by such means as Blake uses do we become conscious of them.”

So here’s an invitation to you:  can you find a similar use of a rhythmic motif in this poem, from the prefatory matter to Blake’s Milton?

And did those feet in ancient time.                                                                                                   Walk upon Englands mountains green:                                                                                            And was the holy Lamb of God,                                                                                                        On Englands pleasant pastures seen!

And did the Countenance Divine,                                                                                                      Shine forth upon our clouded hills?                                                                                                    And was Jerusalem builded here,                                                                                                    Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Bring me my Bow of burning gold;                                                                                                    Bring me my Arrows of desire:                                                                                                 Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!                                                                                               Bring me my Chariot of fire!

I will not cease from Mental Fight,                                                                                              Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:                                                                                             Till we have built Jerusalem,                                                                                                            In Englands green & pleasant Land[11]

Is it any wonder that Orson Scott Card brings William Blake to America to serve as Alvin Maker’s mentor and guide?

And, since I ought to have some skin in the game, here’s a sonnet that happened to me in Sacrament Meeting, when I should have been listening to other voices:

I think of Milton blind and broken, who sang                                                                                 of Paradise and loss, how each we take                                                                                            of our own will the fruit from the helical snake                                                                               aglow in the dawn, glistening single fang                                                                                          to help us eat experience and its pang.                                                                                             We pluck where he points and as we bite we break                                                                       the skin that keeps us; we poison our heart’s long ache                                                                at having initiated into his gang.                                                                                                       For Milton, who had seen his Commonwealth                                                                             shattered & smashed by the Stuart Restoration,                                                                           the musing anchored him while he waited to sink.                                                                         But filling his lungs with dawn again, good health                                                                      overcame him, as he called up a new nation                                                                                   and sung with such voice as to heal its king.

But hold on, I hear you saying; isn’t that just filler, avoiding a discussion of Blake’s long line?

Your turn.


[1] The rhythms of English poetry /  Derek Attridge. – London and New York : Longman, 1982, p. vii.

[2] Ibid., viii.

[3] Poetic rhythm : an introduction / Derek Attridge.  — Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, 1995.  This is a practical text for teaching students, whereas The rhythms of English poetry lays out his theory taking fully into account the linguistic and phonological evidence undergirding it.

[4] “Prosody” / John Creaser, pp. 297-301 in The Milton encyclopedia / edited by Thomas N. Corns. New Haven : Yale University Press, c2012.  The quotation above is from pp. 297-8.  And yes, I just cut and pasted that in, and I’m about to do it again.

[5] Ibid., p. 298.

[6] Complete writings, with variant readings / Blake. — Oxford standard authors edition / edited by Geoffrey Keynes. — London ; New York : Oxford University Press, 1969; p. 216.  The punctuation has been regularized from that shown in my facsimile edition of Songs of innocence & of experience / William Blake. — [Folio Society ed.] / introduction by Richard Holmes. — London : the Society, 1992 (and is the better for it).

[7] Op. cit., p. 304.

[8] Sorry, but I can’t reproduce Attridge’s elegant notation of beats and off-beats in WordPress.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., pp. 304-5.

[11] Milton / William Blake. – Edited and with a commentary by Kay Parkhurst Easson and Roger R. Easson. – Boulder, Colorado : Shambala ; New York : Random House, 1978.  This edition reproduces the plates of a copy of Milton printed by Blake in 1808-1809 and never before reproduced, as well as additional plates from a copy printed in 1815; note the unregularized punctuation.

About Dennis Clark

Dennis Clark should have been locked up long ago, but since he was allowed to wed and breed, the cat is out of the bag, the toothpaste is out of the tube, the cat is pawing the toothpaste and you should be careful what you put in your mouth. Put a good poem in your mouth!
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3 Responses to in verse # 31 : dark Satanic mills

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    Sadly, there aren’t that many people who study meter (and they tend to be viewed with wonder and/or worry by their fellows in literature programs and departments). Such knowledge as I have I’ve picked up only in passing.

    That said, once one starts looking for verbal structures, one finds interesting things. In Jerusalem, I noticed the pairing of “Englands mountains green” with “Englands pleasant pastures seen,” but thought nothing interesting was there. Later, though, I noticed that the final phrase that directly mentions England (“Englands green and pleasant land”) carefully echoes both of the previous lines, with one descriptive word borrowed from each. Not a rhythmic effect, but a benefit of looking closely at what is written.

    Okay, so I found one rhythmic pattern in Jerusalem that might be worth mentioning: the strong-weak-weak-strong units in “Bring me my…” from stanza 3, which are echoed elsewhere in the poem only (so far as I can tell) in stanza 4′s “Nor shall my sword.” A kind of stirring martial (verbal) trumpet calling, interrupting what is otherwise mostly a more regular poem (especially in the lines that deal more specifically with God) (if that makes sense).

    As for your poem… I’m not sure I understand the patterns well enough to describe them, or see how they relate to the earlier patterns you had cited. Though I do find it interesting that you describe him as working to heal the new king. I had never thought his attitude toward the Restoration so reconciled and constructive…

    • Dennis Clark says:

      I would never argue that Milton intended to heal anything related to monarchy, let alone the monarch; but, since Milton was at home stewing on his own juices, wondering whether he would be tried for treason and imprisoned, or hanged, drawn and quartered, or burned at the stake, when he began to dictate Paradise lost, I doubt that he could have failed to notice that he was not, really, prosecuted. I would contend that, despite his republican leanings, his poem became a peace offering, a national epic accepted by such monarchist converts as Dryden, an epitome of the language.

      My poem is not a demonstration of any of the pattern analysis I’ve been promoting from Attridge, just a demonstration that Milton is still a vibrant cultural force, not perhaps as much in my life as in Blake’s, who seems to demonstrate well Bloom’s theory about the anxiety of influence. But for some reason Blake turned to the prophetic voice and the long line, essentially finding in Milton a hero and a poetic dead end, because Milton had written the blank-verse epic so well that no-one else could follow without being overshadowed.

      But thanks for the response.

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