01 July 2011

Modern Alliterative Verse (Yes, it exists)

Alliterative verse attracts some poets. Perhaps they like the four-beat line. Perhaps the challenge of alliterating. Perhaps the aura of age. Most likely, I think, alliterative verse seems like a halfway point between the the martinet of metre and the libertine of free verse. A happy halfway point.

One person who dabbled in it was Ezra Pound. Two of his poems that follow the old form, though very loosely, are among his best-known. The first is a translation of the first ninety-nine lines of the Old English poem "The Seafarer." Here are a few lines:

My feet were by frost benumbed.
Chill its chains are; chafing sighs
Hew my heart round and hunger begot
Mere-weary mood. Lest man know not
That he on dry land loveliest liveth,
List how I, care-wretched, on ice-cold sea,
Weathered the winter, wretched outcast

 Another one of Pound's is called "Canto I," and is a much more interesting experiment, I think. Pound took part of a Latin translation of Homer's Odyssey and translated that into English, using a loose approximation of Alliterative Verse! Since I first found this I have wished that someone would follow Pound's pointing finger and translate the rest of it into this form. However, that would be a huge project (four times larger than Beowulf is!) and would not find much of an audience. Still, here's the beginning of "Canto I," translating part of Book XI of the Odyssey.

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, so winds from sternward
Bore us out onward with bellying canvas,
Circe's this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
Then sat we amidships, wind jamming the tiller,
Thus with stretched sail, we went over sea till day's end.
Sun to his slumber, shadows o'er all the ocean,
Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,
To the Kimmerian lands, and peopled cities
Covered with close-webbed mist, unpierced ever
With glitter of sun-rays

Another of the best poets of the twentieth century, W.H. Auden, was also attracted to alliterative verse. The first line of his poem "The Wanderer (from 1930) is obviously influenced by it,

Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle.

and his longest poem, The Age of Anxiety is composed in it. Here is a small taste:

For the others, like me, there is only the flash
Of negative knowledge, the night when, drunk, one
Staggers to the bathroom and stares in the glass
To meet one’s madness, when what mother said seems
Such darling rubbish and the decent advice
Of the liberal weeklies as lost an art
As peasant pottery, for plainly it is not.
To the Cross or to Clarté or to Common Sense
Our passions pray but to primitive totems
As absurd as they are savage; science or no science,
It is Bacchus or the Great Boyg or Baal-Peor,
Fortune’s Ferris-wheel or the physical sound
Of our own names which they actually adore as their
Ground and goal.

Richard Wilbur's "Junk" is all Alliterative Verse. It begins:

An axe angles from my neighbor's ashcan;
It is hell's handiwork, the wood not hickory,
The flow of the grain not faithfully followed.
The shivered shaft rises from a shellheap
Of plastic playthings paper plates,
And the sheer shards of shattered tumblers
That were not annealed for the time needful.
At the same curbside, a cast-off cabinet
Of wavily warped unseasoned wood
Waits to be trundled in the trashman's truck.
Haul them off! Hide them! the heart winces
For junk and gimcrack for jerrybuilt things
And the men who make them for a little money,
Bartering pride like the bought boxer
Who pulls his punches, or the paid-off jockey
Who in the home-stretch holds in his horse.

It is very worth reading all the way through.

However, what some poets take seriously gives others a chuckle. Here is a bit of "Anglosaxon Street" by Earle Birney.

Hoy? with climbing sun    march the bleached beldames
festooned with shopping bags    farded flatarched
bigthewed Saxonwives    stepping over buttrivers
waddling back wienerladen    to suckle smallfry

And, on top of these very original works, we have the small army of people who try to translate Beowulf into something like its original form. It does not look as though Alliterative Verse is going to be forgotten again, though it will never become a large proportion of modern verse.

No comments:

Post a Comment