Poem of the Day: ‘Hendecasyllabics’

What can we say of efforts by English poets to use Greek and Latin prosody, except that it was a noble endeavor, high minded and born of serious classical education?

Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, detail of photograph by Bain News Service. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

Back in the 16th century, English poets made an attempt to remodel English verse with classical meter — the system, used by the ancient Greeks and Romans, that understood poetic lines as patterns of long and short syllables (called “quantity”), rather than the patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables that English typically uses. What can we say of it, except that it was a noble endeavor, high minded and born of serious classical education? 

And, of course, that it was also doomed. Here’s Thomas Watson (c. 1557–1592), for example, trying his hand at hexameters: “All travellers do gladly report great praise of Ulysses, / For that he knew many men’s manners and saw many cities.” And here’s the talented Edmund Spenser (1553–1599) diligently struggling: “See ye the blindfoldēd pretty god, that feathered archer / Of lovērs miseries, which maketh his bloodie game.”

A few later poets — mostly because of their training in Latin and Greek — would fiddle around with quantitative verse. Here’s Coleridge (1772–1834) reminding us of the shape of elegiac couplets: “In the hexameter rises the fountain’s silvery column; / In the pentameter aye falling in melody back.” But really it wasn’t till the Victorians that English saw another concerted effort to make classical meters work. 

Those Victorian poems proved uneven, but the centuries of efforts by English poets to use Greek and Latin prosody seem worth noting. And so this week The New York Sun devotes its Poem of the Day feature to classical Greek and Latin meters in English, beginning with one of the efforts of Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809–1892). Tennyson has given us the Poem of the Day several times before, and in this 1863 poem, “Hendecasyllabics,” he manages something close to the Victorians’ ideal: a poem lining up the long vowels and syllables that Latin wants with the accentual stresses that English demands: “All composed in a metre of Catullus . . . / Like a skater on ice that hardly bears him.”

Hendecasyllabics
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

O you chorus of indolent reviewers, 
Irresponsible, indolent reviewers, 
Look, I come to the test, a tiny poem 
All composed in a metre of Catullus 
All in quantity, careful of my motion, 
Like a skater on ice that hardly bears him, 
Lest I fall unawares before the people, 
Waking laughter in indolent reviewers. 
Should I flounder awhile without a tumble 
Through this metrification of Catullus, 
They should speak to me not without a welcome, 
All that chorus of indolent reviewers. 
Hard, hard, hard is it, only not to tumble, 
So fantastical is the dainty metre. 
Wherefore slight me not wholly, nor believe me 
Too presumptuous, indolent reviewers. 
O blatant Magazines, regard me rather —
Since I blush to belaud myself a moment —
As some rare little rose, a piece of inmost 
Horticultural art, or half coquette-like 
Maiden, not to be greeted unbenignly.

___________________________________________ 

With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems will be typically drawn from the lesser-known portion of the history of English verse. In the coming months we will be reaching out to contemporary poets for examples of current, primarily formalist work, to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.


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