Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Your correspondent attempts metrical poetry.

A while back I acquired a copy of William Baer's Writing Metrical Poetry. After reading some introductory material, and learning about iambs (duh-DAH: think, "I WAN-dered LONE-ly AS a CLOUD"); trochees (DAH-duh: think, "ONCE up-ON a MID-night DREAR-y"); anapests (DAH-duh-duh: think, "THIS is the FOR-est pri-ME-val, the MUR-mur-ing PINES and the HEM-locks"; yes, that's a trochee at the end); and dactyls (duh-duh-DAH: think of where the Lone Ranger takes his garbage, "To the DUMP, to the DUMP..."), feet (iambs, etc.) to the line (scansion), rhyme schemes, slant rhymes, and so forth, I got to my first assignment. This was to write a four line poem, in "common measure", about a historical figure. Common measure is a rhythmic/rhyme scheme often used for hymns. A verse in common measure consists of two lines of iambic tetrameter (four iambs to the line) alternating with two lines of iambic trimeter (three to the line), with an abab rhyme scheme; for example:

A-MAZ-ing GRACE how SWEET the SOUND
That SAVED a WRETCH like ME,
I ONCE was LOST, but NOW am FOUND,
Was BLIND but NOW I SEE.
(If you want to give yourself a very bad earworm, realize that you can sing "Amazing Grace" to the tune of the theme song from Gilligan's Island, which is also in common measure.)

Anyway, while thinking of a name that would fit well into such a metric scheme, "Wilberforce" came to mind. Of course, this would be Bishop Samuel "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce, famous for his debate with Thomas Huxley over Darwin's theory of evolution. So, here's my poem:
THE BALLAD OF SOAPY SAM AND TART-TONGUED TOM

When Bishop Wilberforce denied
An ape could be his kin,
The clever Huxley then replied:
“I’d rather ape than him.”
In writing this, I violated several of Baer's instructions. For example: (1) the tone of the poem is humorous, not heroic; (2) I used two historical figures, not one; and (3) I used a slant rhyme ("kin/him"). I also played hob with history a bit: Wilberforce didn't squarely deny simian ancestry; he just asked Huxley on which side of his family tree his monkey forebears could be found. Nevertheless, I hope you enjoy it. Try singing it to the tune of "Amazing Grace".

8/13 Update: On the subject of evolution, there's a great column by Olivia Judson on the op-ed page of today's New York Times.