Statement of Philosophy

A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.



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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Tamburlaine the Great, Pt 1 by Christopher Marlowe

Back from my break. To say, I was able to finish the project for which I had blocked off the time. Which is a good thing. Perhaps the final result was not as good as I had hoped for, but we can't expect the best results every time.

As I said on my last post, initiating the break, I am unsure how I want to proceed with this blog. The longer posts like this one are fun, but can also be laborious. And I would like to try to give more effort to smaller, "spur of the moment" posts, as well as more posts that respond directly to verse. Whether and how I might do that, however, I do not yet know.


 

the line period

 

My launching point for this excursion is a moment from T.S. Eliot's "The Blank Verse of Marlowe" (found in The Sacred Wood). There is no reason not to get right to it, so:

The verse accomplishments of Tamburlaine are notably two: Marlowe gets into blank verse the melody of Spenser, and he gets a new driving power by reinforcing the sentence period against the line period. The rapid long sentence, running line into line, as in the famous soliloquies "Nature commended of four elements" and "What is beauty, with my sufferings, then" marks the certain escape of blank verse from the rhymed couplet, and from the elegiac or rather pastoral note of Surrey, to which Tennyson returned.

We will pick up Marlowe shortly. Right now I want to focus on the concept the Eliot brings into his discussion of Marlowe, that of the line period.

It is a wonderful term. It is not synonymous with line break, and the reasons why are important and speak to its general superiority. For a line break can be arbitrarily had. Simply apply a carriage return and, voilà, you have a line break. However, a line period – as with the sentence period – speaks to a construction that is attending to far more than the mere question of where the line ends. A sentence period does not exist merely because it marks the end of the sentence. The presence of the period speaks to the nature of the words that precede it – and to the words that follow it in that a period also marks the beginning of a new sentence.

A period – be it of a sentence or line – serves to mark not a break but a conclusion: the conclusion of a thought, or an idea, or some other semantic or other unit. It serves to mark also the "unitness" of the preceding words. A sentence period identifies a sentence as a unit sentence (even if that "sentence" is a fragment); so also does a line period mark a line as a unit line. At least, it does so when the line period actually exists: just because there is a line break does not mean there is a line period.

That is, just because one has written a line break does not mean that one has written a line.

To me, this is fundamental verse writing. And, to be honest, I do not see how verse writing can be conceived any other way. Indeed, it is arguable that every aspect of versecraft is built upon the element of the verse line. Not the line break, but the line as a unit, as a whole; in extension, the line as whole unto itself, the line as understood in conjunction with the lines that precede and follow it, and the line as part of the unity of the whole of the text.

Just as in free verse this is the rejection of the arbitrary line break, so also is this rejection in formal verse of the line defined merely by meter. That is but substitution of the meeting of a concept for the crafting of a line that uses the concept but attains a unity beyond the concept. Writing a line simply so that it fits a meter is not in that limited sense writing a line such as merits and carries a line period. In fact, writing a line as defined only by meter is not even necessarily writing verse, as we will see.

This is inherent to Eliot's use of the idea of the line period above. He is speaking of not just of endings but of how lines play against sentences and grammatical units in general. Let's take a look at the first passage to which Eliot refers, or at least the opening of that speech in Tamburlaine the Great, Part I.

The thirst of reign and sweetness of a crown,
That caus'd the eldest son of heavenly Ops
To thrust his doting father from his chair,
And place himself in the empyreal heaven,
Mov'd me to manage arms against thy state.
What better precedent than mighty Jove?
Nature, that fram'd us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world,
And measure every wandering planet's course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Will us to wear ourselves, and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown. (II.vii.12-29)

As an example of blank verse it is perhaps an easily used passage toward the idea of the line period as only thrice does a line not end on a punctuation mark. Though, in all three of those lines we can readily see the unit idea.

That caus'd the eldest son of heavenly Ops

Nature, that fram'd us of four elements

Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend

The three lines are strong enough that they maintain their unit identity against the longer flow of the sentences. Which is Eliot's point: the text is written so that the listener hears both the unity of the independent lines and the unity of the independent sentences, and in turn the play between the two.

We need only manipulate the lines to reveal the unities of the text. Take the beginning of the third and longest sentence in the passage.

Nature, that fram'd us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:

The phrase "for regiment" can be removed. Notice the change (you should be reading this so as to hear the aural effect):

Nature, that fram'd us of four elements
Warring within our breasts, doth teach
Us all to have aspiring minds: our souls

The meter is maintained, but the unity of the lines has been disrupted. The idea created by "warring within our breasts" now ends before the line ends. The next idea then starts too early, creating an even more fragmentary idea in the third line. There is little if any unity to be found in

Us all to have aspiring minds: our souls

even though it still fits quite neatly within the metric of iambic pentameter.

The next two lines in the text show how a long syntactic phrase can yet create line periods.

Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world,

The line period rests after "comprehend," at the division point between verb and object.

Notice how the lines are being crafted to be both five feet in length and also semantic units. The root clause is

Our souls, which can comprehend the architecture
of the world,

The first line is still acceptable – if weaker – blank verse. However, it creates the issue of the splitting the next line in two. There is no unity that can be found in the resulting line (ignoring issues of meter).

Of the world, and measure every wandering planet's

The two lines are written in the original with the added words "whose faculties" and "wondrous", words that work to create two solid lines with functioning line periods. Note, though, they are also words that function to expand the ideas being generated by the text. "Wondrous" is not an empty or superfluous adjective, it is not mere metric filler material.

Following the rest of the passage you should be able to see for yourself how Marlowe was writing a sentence across blank verse without ever weakening the line unities within the sentence. Each line is a strong line – a strong iambic pentameter line – marked by its own line period. The play of those lines against the longer flow of the sentence is the art which Eliot finds in Marlowe.

Notice, though, Eliot states it as "reinforcing the sentence period against the line period," not the other way around. The art in Marlowe is that the sentence, running across the lines, gains strength when the lines themselves are not being conceived as sentential units. Without the unity of the lines being diminished, they can yet work together to create long, flowing sentences. Thus the "certain escape" from blank verse.

Take a look, for example, at this passage of Pope's, the opening moments to The Rape of the Lock (as presented in my Student's Cambridge Edition of The Complete Poetical Works of Alexander Pope)

What dire offence from am'rous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things,
I sing—This verse to Caryll, Muse! is due:
This, ev'n Belinda may vouchsafe to view:
Slight is the subject, but not so the praise,
If she inspire, and he approve my lays.
    Say what strange motive, Goddess! could compel
A well-bred Lord t' assault a gentle belle?
O say what stranger cause, yet unexplor'd,
Could make a gentle belle reject a Lord?
In tasks so bold, can little men engage,
And in soft bosoms dwells such mighty rage?
    Sol thro' white curtains shot a tim'rous ray,
And op'd those eyes that must eclipse the day;
Now lap-dogs give themselves the rousing shake,
And sleepless lovers, just at twelve, awake:
Thrice rung the bell, the slipper knock'd the ground,
And the press'd watch return'd a silver sound. (I. 1-18)

Notice that though the first six lines – and the last six lines, which begin a longer verse paragraph – are one sentence in length, the flow of the text does not carry across the couplets in the manner of Marlowe, where the reader hears both the line and the sentence. Rather, the flow of the text is defined by the couplets: though, technically, the sentence may not end, after every couplet the text yet comes to a very strong stop. And never would that stop occur within the couplet.

We can still, however, see the play of the lines within the couplet, and the art of writing blank verse at the time of Pope lay in the perfect form of the couplet, of two-line unit of verse. Take for example the one moment where a line does not end with punctuation.

Say what strange motive, Goddess! could compel
A well-bred Lord t' assault a gentle belle?

We see the same unity of line we saw in Marlowe. The break occurs at a natural point between verb and object. As well, the interjected "Goddess!" in the first line and the adjectives in the second are not but filler for stress counts. The interjection gives emotional emphasis to the coming idea of "assault"; and the adjectives "well-bred" and "gentle" play off each other within the context of the story.

To show that rhymed couplets do not demand the heavy stops we see in Pope, we need only look to Browning. Look at the opening of "My Last Duchess."

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call
That piece a wonder, now: Frà Pandolf's hands
Worked busily a day, and there she stands.
Will 't please you sit and look at her? I said
'Frà Pandolf' by design, for never read
Strangers like you that pictured countenance,
The depth and passion of its earnest glance,
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
And seemed as they would ask me, if they durst,
How such a glance came there; so, not the first
Are you to turn and ask thus. (1-13)

Browning here seems to break away somewhat from the semantic unity of the line we saw in Marlowe, but he does so for a reason. He is simultaneously writing rhymed couplets and conversational monologue: he wants to establish a continuous flow of speech across the rhymed couplets. To do such, he has to disrupt the tick-tock tick-tock generated by the meter and rhyme we see in Pope. Though, he does not do it by completely ignoring the structure of the sentences within the lines. In the first instance, the opening two lines,

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,
Looking as if she were alive. I call

the short phrase "I call" at the end of the second line propels the reader forward against the stop of the second half of the rhyme, something especially important here because it is the first couplet: Browning doesn't want the reader to over-hear the couplet and underhear that the text is monologue. But the break is not arbitrary: the break comes between the verb and object, not, say (ignoring rhyme and meter) after "I". In fact, one can read the line with the presence of a line period: one can put a touch of emphasis on "call." Just as with the similar event at

Will 't please you sit and look at her? I said
'Frà Pandolf' by design, for never read

In fact the emphasis on "said" here created by the line period goes to the emotion of the lines, both in that they can be read with an aural emphasis on "said" and in that the next line begins with the words that Duke in his arrogance is himself emphasizing, "Fra Pandolf."

So we see that even when Browning seems to be going against the idea of line unity, there is design and purpose beyond mere syllable count and rhyme for that variation, purpose that functions beyond the line itself.

Where that purpose and design begins to break down is where we get into works that function to the opposing side to the definiteness of Pope's rhymed couplets: "the elegaic or rather pastoral note of Surrey, to which Tennyson returned." I'll use the opening of Tennyson's "Dora," a pastoral piece, as example.

With farmer Allan at the farm abode
William and Dora. William was his son,
And she his niece. He often look'd at them,
And often thought "I'll make them man and wife".
Now Dora felt her uncle's will in all,
And yearn'd towards William; but the youth, because
He had been always with her in the house,
Thought not of Dora. Then there came a day
When Allan call'd his son, and said,
"My son: I married late, but I would wish to see
My grandchild on my knees before I die:
And I have set my heart upon a match.
Now therefore look to Dora; she is well
To look to; thrifty too beyond her age. (1-14)

In counter point to the strongly punctuated aural structure of the rhymed couplet as with Pope, here we have lines so broken up into phrases smaller than the line that the reader has to work to keep the rhythms of blank verse in their reading.

So also with the very casual movement from one line to the next. Take the first two lines:

With farmer Allan at the farm abode
William and Dora. William was his son,

To appearances the line break occurs primarily to preserve the phrase "William and Dora," as opposed to, say,

With Allan at the farm abode son William
and Dora.

Whatever the reason, there is in the first line hardly any presence of a line period. Though, it is to not that the line period is not abandoned by the text: the vast majority of the lines do break in expected places. The verse, however, is extremely conversational in sound, and as often as it is reinforcing the blank verse it is also breaking away from it. One might argue that the correct way to read it aloud is to let the sentence periods overwhelm the line periods. It is a very prosaic work, and the text might serve as example of where verse approaches (but does not become) prose.

That boundary can be explored with a very simple experiment. Let's go back to our original excerpt, that from Marlowe's Tamburlaine. To save you from looking back I'll give it again.

The thirst of reign and sweetness of a crown,
That caus'd the eldest son of heavenly Ops
To thrust his doting father from his chair,
And place himself in the empyreal heaven,
Mov'd me to manage arms against thy state.
What better precedent than mighty Jove?
Nature, that fram'd us of four elements
Warring within our breasts for regiment,
Doth teach us all to have aspiring minds:
Our souls, whose faculties can comprehend
The wondrous architecture of the world,
And measure every wandering planet's course,
Still climbing after knowledge infinite,
And always moving as the restless spheres,
Will us to wear ourselves, and never rest,
Until we reach the ripest fruit of all,
That perfect bliss and sole felicity,
The sweet fruition of an earthly crown.

Let's take that passage and shift the line breaks by two feet. The iambic aspect of the passage may take a little damage at the breaks, but overall the result is still workable to the experiment, as I need not break any words.

                The thirst of reign and sweetness
Of a crown, that caus'd the eldest son
Of heavenly Ops to thrust his doting father
From his chair, and place himself in the
Empyreal heaven, mov'd me to manage arms
Against thy state. What better precedent
Than mighty Jove? Nature, that fram'd us of
Four elements warring within our breasts
For regiment, doth teach us all to have
Aspiring minds: our souls, whose faculties
Can comprehend the wondrous architecture
Of the world, and measure every wandering
Planet's course, still climbing after knowledge
Infinite, and always moving as
The restless spheres, will us to wear ourselves,
And never rest, until we reach the ripest
Fruit of all, that perfect bliss and sole
Felicity, the sweet fruition of
An earthly crown.

Though the lines remain loosely iambic pentameter, they have for the most part lost their sense of having been written as lines. The lines no longer carry line periods. Rather, the line breaks in the passage appear entirely arbitrarily applied. They may be counted out – one, two, three, four, five, break; one, two, three, four, five, break; – but there is nothing about the lines themselves beyond the five beat count that gives them any identity or independent unity as written lines of verse.

While some lines fall into a new completeness, and it would be expected that by happenstance some lines would, even those lines are shown to be devoid of identity by looking at them in context. For example,

Four elements warring within our breasts

can stand as a completed line of iambic pentameter verse. However, within the context of what comes before and after

Than mighty Jove? Nature, that fram'd us of
Four elements warring within our breasts
For regiment, doth teach us all to have

the 'line' seems completely accidental. Leading out of the line previous and into the line following, the flow of the sentence seems arbitrarily cut. In context – and texts must always be read in their full context – there is nothing to the text that would make a reader think that the writer was composing lines except through the counting out of one, two, three, four, five, break.

The perhaps startling conclusion to this experiment is that the text, considering it is devoid of written lines, can no longer be called verse. And I argue at that it is no longer verse: it is now prose. It may be iambic prose – and in calling it iambic prose we see one way in which prose may be given shape, in which prose can have a prosody – and the right margin may have been decided by a stress count rather than by an inch count – which may be a second way that prose can be given shape, though a poor one, that serves mostly to conceal the prose behind a false mask of verse – but without readerly confidence in the presence of written lines the text cannot be called "verse" in any real sense that is meant to distinguish it from "prose."

Where does this experiment lead us?

While the verse-prose spectrum is indeed a spectrum, and must be understood as being one, we may yet find a useful – which is to say pragmatic – dividing line between what is called "verse" and what is called "prose" at the idea of the written line. Note: I do not say there "line break", I say "line." The line that might be made: verse is written in lines, which is a prosodic unit; prose is written in paragraphs, which is a semantic unit. Though, it being a spectrum we should expect the line to be blurred. It is after all possible to write very short paragraphs that serve to function not unlike verse lines; as well, the verse stanza can (and, arguably, should) serve to function as paragraphs. In recognition of that, in recognition that verse lines are crafted also with semantic considerations, and in recognition that prose is not without its prosody, I immediately want to modify my statement:

Verse is written in lines, which is a prosodic unit (though it may also be a semantic unit); prose is written in paragraphs, which is a semantic unit (though it may also be a prosodic unit).

This is the conclusion I am pressing, a conclusion that speaks much to the so-called "free verse" that is being written today. The marking point between verse and prose is the introduction of a certain type of shape – the prosodic aspect of the written line – and the use of that shape to define the general character of the work. Without that shaping of the text into lines – which is accomplished neither by the mere presence of a line break nor by metrical counting – the text is not verse but prose.

And if it is prose, why is it pretending to be verse?

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