Category Archives: music

Learning Verse with Borges: II. The Octasyllable

 

As those of you who have read my Art of Scansion series are no doubt aware, one of my obsessions of late has been the foundations underpinning formal verse. English verse is structured on prosodic beat, but this sort of mechanism is available to it principally because English is a stress-timed language — poetry occurs as a sequence of beats.

By contrast, Spanish is a syllable-timed language. There is no two-tier system between stressed and unstressed syllables as occurs in English, and with only five vowels — /a e i o u/ — no long/short distinctions of the sort that characterized classical verse, either. Spanish, in other words, perhaps more than any other European language, finds itself reliant on the timing inherent within the syllabification itself to develop its poetry. Let us therefore use examples from Jorge Luis Borges’ corpus to examine the three major types of formal Spanish poetry.

In the last post we began with a discussion of the default form of Spanish poetry, the hendecasyllable. We will continue our discussion here with Spanish ballad meter — particularly the octasyllable.

When we think of ballads today we usually think of Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” or Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”, and there are fascinating articles to write on the metrics of each, but the classic English ballad more often took the form of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner“. This meter is ultimately descended from a concatenation of Germanic alliterative tetrameter and the Norman French octasyllable, the latter of which is a cousin to the Spanish octasyllable.

In Four Six Strings, Borges writes several poems meant to be milonga lyrics. The milonga is a type of waltz-like ballad that emerged in Plate River region in the late 19th century, one that has continued to develop into something with a richly jazzy sound, such as Otros Aires’ “Milonga sentimental”:

Let us take a look at one of these, the “Milonga de Manuel Flores”:

Manuel Flores va a morir,
eso es moneda corriente;
morir es una costumbre
que sabe tener la gente.

Y sin embargo me duele
decirle adiós a la vida,
esa cosa tan de siempre,
tan dulce y tan conocida.

Miro en el alba mis manos,
miro en las manos las venas;
con estrañeza las miro
como si fueran ajenas.

Vendrán los cuatro balazos
y con los cuatro el olvido;
lo dijo el sabio Merlín:
morir es haber nacido.

¡Cuánto cosa en su camino
estos ojos habrán visto!
Quién sabe lo que verán
después que me juzgue Cristo.

Manuel Flores va a morir,
eso es moneda corriente:
morir es una costumbre
que sabe tener la gente.*

Recall here that Spanish prosody is highly syllabic in nature: the language is syllable-timed, with words primary stresses occurring regularly on the penultimate syllable. Because of this, we should expect the primary stress in octasyllabic poetry to occur regularly on the 7th syllable, just as it does on the 10th syllable in hendecasyllabic poetry.

Let us therefore examine a stanza, using the same system of analysis we developed for hendecasyllables:

Mi-ro’n el al-ba mis ma-nos,
mi-ro’n las ma-nos las ve-nas;
con est-ra-ñe-za las mi-ro
co-mo si fue-ran a-je-nas.

Two things should immediately pop out at us: First, that the primary stress does indeed fall regularly on the 7th syllable, and secondly, that there are no secondary stresses to worry about. Octasyllabic meter is:

x x x x x x O s,

six syllables, that is, of any stress, followed by a seventh stressed syllable and the usual unstressed “tail” common of Romance-language prosody.

This is likely in large part because an octasyllable is about the longest sustainable breathing, and one easy to keep time in. It’s no accident that ballads are the most common meter fitted to music — they naturally fit to 4/4 time. In iambic tetrameter:

one two three four, one two three four,

and in octasyllables:

one two three four, one two three four.

However, recalling that Spanish prosody is a plus-one sort, this also means that octasyllabic lines can be as short as seven syllables:

Ma-nuel Flo-res v’a mo-rir,

and naturally as long as nine syllables (if not more).

That means that octasyllables are structurally the simplest of the major Spanish meters. They really only have one major limitation:

  • Line stress falls on the 7th syllable, from which
  • the line defaults to 8 syllables long.

There are no multiple breathings, no caesuras to find or keep in mind. It is just a block of syllabification that perfectly fits into a measure of music. In this way, though octasyllables are structurally the simplest major form of Spanish verse, they are also the most musical.

In our next (and last) installment, let us turn our attention to the alexandrine.


* Robert Mezey translates it in The New Criterion as follows:

Manuel Flores is going to die.
You can bet your money it’s true;
And dying, well, that’s a common thing
That people know how to do.

And still, to say goodbye to life
Pierces me to the bone,
Life that is such an everyday thing,
So intimately known.

I look at my hands at daybreak,
I look at the veins, the pulse,
With a queer feeling, almost as if
They belonged to someone else.

Four final bullets will come and then
I won’t know if any mourn;
Merlin the magician said it:
Dying is having been born.

So many things on the road of life
Were given these eyes to see!
Who knows what other things
After Christ judges me.

Manuel Flores is going to die,
You can bet your money it’s true,
And dying is a common thing
Everyone knows how to do.

Learning Verse with Borges: I. The Hendecasyllable

As those of you who have read my Art of Scansion series are no doubt aware, one of my obsessions of late has been the foundations underpinning formal verse. English verse is structured on prosodic beat, but this sort of mechanism is available to it principally because English is a stress-timed language — poetry occurs as a sequence of beats.

By contrast, Spanish is a syllable-timed language. There is no two-tier system between stressed and unstressed syllables as occurs in English, and with only five vowels — /a e i o u/ — no long/short distinctions of the sort that characterized classical verse, either. Spanish, in other words, perhaps more than any other European language,* finds itself reliant on the timing inherent within the syllabification itself to develop its poetry. Let us therefore use examples from Jorge Luis Borges’ corpus to examine the three major types of formal Spanish poetry, starting with the hendecasyllable.

Consider his sonnet “Camden, 1892”:

El olor del café y de los periódicos.
El domingo y su tedio. La mañana
y en la entrevista página esa vana
publicación de versos alegóricos
de un colega feliz. El hombre viejo
está postrado y blanco en su decente
habitación de pobre. Ociosamente
mira su cara en el cansado espejo.
Piensa, ya sin asombro, que esa cara
es él. La distraída mano toca
la turbia barba y saqueada boca.
No está lejos el fin. Su voz declara:
Casi no soy, pero mis versos ritman
la vida y su esplendor. Yo fui Walt Whitman.**

The first thing we should note is that none of these lines end with stressed syllables. It’s akin to if every line of verse in English ended with -ing. Instead, the stresses normally lie on the penultimate syllable: mañana, vana, viejo, decente, ociosamente, espejo, cara, boca, declara, ritman, Whitman. There are two exceptions in this poem: periódicos and alericos, both of which (a) rhyme with each other, and (b) have their stresses clearly marked by an acute accent — marking irregular stress being that accent’s job in Spanish.

Let us also notice how long these syllables are, using the final couplet as our guide. Prosodically, Spanish will tend to elide vowels together unless the syllabification dictates otherwise, which we will use apostrophes to mark:

Ca-si no soy, pe-ro mis ver-sos rit-man
la vi-da’y su’s-plen-dor. Yo fui Walt Whit-man.

There are 11 syllables in each line here — with the tenth line being marked by syllabic stress. Beyond that, stress patterns become much more variable:

Ca-si no soy, pe-ro mis ver-sos rit-man
la vi-da’y su’s-plen-dor. Yo fui Walt Whit-man.

Thus we can say at a pass that Spanish hendecasyllabic lines are usually

x x x x x x x x x O s,

where marks any stress, marks a required stress, and a required non-stress. The tenth syllable, that is, must be stressed. If this is true, then the periódicos/alegóricos rhyme must be twelve syllables long, if the marked stress falls on the tenth syllable:

El o-lor del ca-fé’y de los pe-rió-di-cos.
. . . . . . . . . . .
pub-li-ca-ción de ver-sos a-le-gó-ri-cos . . .

They do indeed. Thus, while the versification may be hendecasyllabic because it is usually 11 syllables long, because the stress must fall on the 10th syllable, it can be as short as 10 syllables long or as long as 12 — these two cases, are, however, outliers, because Spanish stress is regularly on the penult.

However, there is a second pattern at play here, one less noticeable. We will use a slash mark (/) to indicate natural pauses in the verse:

El o-lor del ca-fé’y / de los pe-rió-di-cos.
. . . . . . . . . . .
pub-li-ca-ción / de ver-sos a-le-gó-ri-cos
. . . . . . . . . . .
Ca-si no soy, / pe-ro mis ver-sos rit-man
la vi-da’y su’s-plen-dor. / Yo fui Walt Whit-man.

11 syllables, as it turns out, is too long to sustain in one breathing. There are actually two breathings in a hendecasyllabic line, breathings separated by a minor pause — a caesura. This caesura, however, does not have a formal position: it can after stresses lying on the line’s fourth, fifth, or sixth syllables — in other words, although in our examples so far, the caesura has been marked by words ending with stressed syllables, it need not necessarily be. Nor does it have to have a marked pause. Consider:

es él. La dis-tra-í-da / ma-no to-ca . . .

Here the caesura stress occurs on the 6th syllable (í), but the caesura itself doesn’t occur until after the 7th. This is more common than the fortuitous combination of interlinear stresses that occurred in our previous examples.

Let us now collate the features we pulled out of the prosody:

  • The Spanish hendecasyllable defaults to, but is not necessarily always, 11 syllables long. (The word hendecasyllable means “11 syllables long” in Greek.)
  • The line’s primary stress must fall on the 10th syllable. One can thus conceive of a hendecasyllable as “decasyllable + a little extra”. This is because Spanish words, like those of most Romance languages, do not end with syllabic stress; the implication then is that the hendecasyllable evolved from an older decasyllabic format e.g. that found in the Song of Roland.
  • Hendecasyllabic lines have two breathings, marked by a short pause called a caesura. The caesura itself must be preceded by a second stress (hence hendecasyllabic lines must have two stresses) that can occur between the 4th and 6th syllable; the pause itself can occur anywhere between the 4th and 7th syllables. This implies that hendecasyllables subdivide into 4+7, 5+6, 6+5, and 7+4 hemistichs.

It is worth noting here that the hendecasyllable is the default vehicle for verse in Spanish.*** Yet, at the same time, unlike her English cousin, iambic pentameter, it is relatively difficult to sustain blank (i.e. unrhymed) hendecasyllables. This is not to say it is impossible: Borges does so in “The Other Tiger”. But between (a) versification built on breathings rather than beats, and (b) the natural ease with which Spanish rhymes, hendecasyllables are almost always vehicles for rhyme schemes in a way that English verse finds more difficult to sustain. Terza rima, ottava rima, and the Petrarchan sonnet are all, for example, rhyme schemes built on an underlying hendecasyllabic vehicle, suggesting a more intimate connection between rhythm and rhyme in Romance-language poetry than that found in Germanic poetry.

To put it bluntly, iambic pentameter has mechanisms available to it for marking line breaks without rhyme, whereas hendecasyllables do not. This is a large part of why sustaining blank iambic verse is a much easier technical achievement than sustaining blank hendecasyllabic verse.

However, while the vast majority of Borges’ more formal poetry is in hendecasyllables, he also makes use of two other formats: octasyllables and alexandrines. Let us next turn our attention to octasyllablic meter, a type of versification which seems like the Spanish analogue of ballad meter.


* Portuguese and Italian retain a long/short vowel distinction, though one much less pronounced than that found in Greek or Latin. French does not, but has around a dozen distinct vowels to work with if it chose to pursue some form of vowel harmony. It’s also worth pointing out that the long/short vowel distinctions found in English, Portuguese, and Italian are more accurately weak forms of vowel harmony (being more phonemic distinctions than anything else) than the one found in Greek and Latin, where a long vowel was voiced for twice the length — get it? — of a short vowel.

** Alastair Reid translates thus:

The smell of coffee and the newspapers.
Sunday and its lassitudes. The morning,
and on the adjoining page, that vanity —
the publication of allegorical verses
by a fortunate fellow poet. The old man
lies on a white bed in his sober room,
a poor man’s habitation. Languidly
he gazes at his face in the worn mirror.
He thinks, beyond astonishment now: that man
is me, 
and absentmindedly his hand
touches the unkempt beard and the worn-out mouth.
The end is close. He mutters to himself:
I am almost dead, but still my poems retain
life and its wonders. I was once Walt Whitman.

(Selected Poems, pg. 213)

*** As well as Portuguese and Italian.

 

The Prosodic Structure of Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven”

 

Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” is — famously — the most played rock song ever. Lauded as an anthemic classic and occasionally reviled (perhaps because of its success), its chords are among the most immediately recognizable in the entire rock music canon, and its singer, Jimmy Plant, is among the genre’s most immediately recognizable voices.

Yet at the same time — despite its popular success — “Stairway to Heaven” is the very antithesis of a pop song. It hews to none of the genre conventions of pop music, then or now, electing instead to develop lyrics that feel like an extended poem, and to structure the song’s musicality around its famous guitar solo. At 8:02 long, “Stairway to Heaven” is twice the length as a typical pop song, giving it time to develop a more intricate musical and prosodic structure. It’s the latter that we’ll be concentrating on today.

The song develops in three principal parts — acts, if you will — with increasing speed and fervency. Choices in instrumentation, key, and time reinforce this structure — as do choices in prosody. “Stairway to Heaven” has a complex and maintained prosodic rhythm — a meter — that reflects its instrumentation: lyrics and music complement each other perhaps more than most other examples in the genre. Let us examine, then, “Stairway to Heaven’s” metrical structure.

Act I

The song opens with the two stanzas

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

There’s a sign on the wall but she wants to be sure
‘Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
In a tree by the brook, there’s a songbird who sings,
Sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven.

Lyrically, there’s a sense of constant waiting, a sort of stretch — one feels as if the beat keeps going on longer than one would expect — a cadence of a long rise, and then a release. This is a calling card of an anapest, a type of cadence that develops like so:

a long phrase, / a short pause

Thus, if we were to scan the first two stanzas we should expect to see this type of pattern emerge:

There’s a la-/-dy who’s sure / all that glit-/-ters is gold
And she’s buy-/-ing a stair-/-way to heav’n.
When she gets / there she knows, / if the stores / are all closed
With a word / she can get / what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, / and she’s buy-/-ing a stair-/-way to heav’n.

There’s a sign / on the wall / but she wants / to be sure
‘Cause you know / sometimes words / have two mean-ings.
In a tree / by the brook, / there’s a song-/-bird who sings,
Sometimes all / of our thoughts / are mis-giv’n.

Indeed, we see the beat regularly fall on the third syllable, a hallmark of anapestic meter. Occasionally, however, we find very long feet: what she cáme for, have two meánings. This type of foot is called a third paeon and commonly occurs in anapestic meter, as we can see in the first two lines of Francis Scott Key’s “The Defense of Fort M’Henry,” which is in anapestic tetrameter: “Oh say, / can you see / by the dawn’s / ear-ly light // What so proud-/-ly we hailed / at the twi-/-light’s last gleam-ing“.

Heaven can therefore be analyzed as a single syllable (which it is by default in traditional prosody e.g. in Paradise Lost) or as two, that is, that the feet it stresses are either anapests or third paeons. Misgiven is likewise, as it is consonant (weakly rhyming) with heaven.

Scanning the first two stanzas, however, reveals an interesting alternation:

(4) There’s a la-/-dy who’s sure / all that glit-/-ters is gold
(3) And she’s buy-/-ing a stair-/-way to heav’n.
(4) When she gets / there she knows, / if the stores / are all closed
(3) With a word / she can get / what she came for.
(4) Ooh, ooh, / and she’s buy-/-ing a stair-/-way to heav’n.

(4) There’s a sign / on the wall / but she wants / to be sure
(3) ‘Cause you know / sometimes words / have two mean-ings.
(4) In a tree / by the brook, / there’s a song-/-bird who sings,
(3) Sometimes all / of our thoughts / are mis-giv’n.

Our stanzas, that is, are not purely in an n-meter. Some lines have four feet, and others three. Nor is it just that some lines are x-meter and others y-meter; instead, there’s a regular alternation between tetrametric and trimetric lines. What you are looking at is a type of ballad meter, a meter associated with folk poetry. It is a meter that is best exemplified in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, in, for example, a quatrain such as the one which opens Part II:

(4) The Sun / now rose / u-pon / the right:
(3) Out of / the sea / came he,
(4) Still hid / in mist, / and on / the left
(3) Went down / in-to / the sea

It is at this point we come to the poem’s first chorus, a simple repeated line:

Ooh, it makes / me won-der,
Ooh, it makes / me won-der.

The line is, in fact, an alternation between an anapest and an amphibrach, a type of foot whose stress falls in its middle. There’s a sense that these lines are actually half-lines divided out by the repetition of ooh, keeping this first chorus a quiet feature which elides out of the listener’s mind. It is followed by another quatrain in anapestic ballad meter:

There’s a feel-/-ing I get / when I look / to the west,
And my spir-/-it is cry-/-ing for leav-ing.
In my thoughts / I have seen / rings of smoke / through the trees,
And the voi-/-ces of those / who stand look-ing.

It is at this point that the chorus repeats, and reveals a variation in meter:

Ooh, it makes / me won-der,
Ooh, it real-/-ly makes / me won-der.

Robert Plant realizes the second line as I’ve scanned, eliding the second it out entirely and developing what had been prior anapestic dimeter into iambic trimeter. This line is the song’s first metric quickening. This sense of variation is also an ancient poetic device, which can be seen, for example, in the opening lines of the Sumerian poem Gilgamesh, Enkidu, and the Netherworld:

In those days, in those distant days,
in those nights, in those remote nights,
in those years, in those distant years;
in days of yore . . .

(Note that the variation in repetition is the poem’s primary structural mechanic.)

The song is developing, but at this point it returns to its roots for one more quatrain in anapestic ballad meter:

And it’s whis-/-pered that soon, / if we all / call the tune,
Then the pi-/-per will lead / us to rea-son.
And a new day will dawn for those who stand long,
And the for-/-ests will ech-/-o with laugh-ter.

Plant’s ability to maintain anapestic meter is breaking down, though, at this point, which is revealed in the quatrain’s third line. The phrase ánd a new dáy is a choriamb, which would naturally decompose into a trochee and an iamb: ánd a / new dáy. The net result is a line that wants to resolve into iambic pentameter

Ánd a / new dáy / will dáwn / for thóse / who stánd long

but needs to resolve into some simulacrum of four anapestic beats. Robert Plant is aware the line is metrically fighting the rhythm and so lays in an exaggerated caesura which forces anapestic resolution across the first part of the line

And a new / day will dawn . . .

but is unable to resist the line’s iambic snap

. . . for those / who stand lóng.

He finally tries to make up for the (defective) final amphibrach by artificially lengthening long, a device I have marked with an acute accent: lóng.

Act II

The second act breaks in on a drum intro, one which signals a shift from the anapestic ballad meter which has so far defined this song, lyrically, to something else entirely. Consider the quatrain:

If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now,
It’s just a spring clean for the May queen.
There are two paths you can go by, but in the long run
There’s still time to change the road you’re on.

Our ears will be, by this point, attuned to one line being metrically longer than the next, but the meter has quickened by quite a lot. Not only that, but the rhythm has become much more metrically complex. The first line leads with a pair of iambs

If there’s / a bustle . . .

but the scansion soon becomes determined by the natural spondee hédge-rów. We’d seen such spondees before (e.g. stáir-wáy), but one or another of the stresses had been suppressed by the beat. Here, though, the spondee begins to drive the beat:

. . . in your / hedge-row / don’t be / ‘larmed now:

This type of foot is called a minor ionic (or double iamb). It occasionally occurs in iambic meter, where it creates a sort of emphasized iamb, as the second name suggests, but Plant makes it drive the couplet’s rhythm:

It’s just / a spring clean / for the / May queen*

(where the second foot is an bacchiuswhich serves to transition from the line’s iambic lead to its ionic tail).

What Plant has done is retained the syllabically long lines the anapestic ballad had developed (12/13 syllables – 9/10) but restructured their internal stresses so they move more quickly, in time with a sped-up musical time. The ionics are much more memorable here, but the couplet still finishes with an example of iambic hexameter leading into iambic tetrameter — the anapestic 4/3 has become an iambic 6/4. (A pun, perhaps, on the concept of time signatures?)

There are / two paths / you can / go by, / but in / the long run
There’s still time / to change / the road / you’re on.

Note that Plant uses a bacchius and an anapest to resolve the odd syllable count (13/9) into an even-foot meter (iambs have two syllables).

When we look at the quatrain as a whole,

If there’s / a bustle / in your / hedge-row, / don’t be / ‘larmed now,
It’s just / a spring clean / for the / May queen.
There are / two paths / you can / go by, / but in / the long run
There’s still time / to change / the road / you’re on.

we see that Plant has changed the song’s prosody from anapestic meter to iambic meter through the use of minor ionics.

At this point we see yet another repetition of the chorus:

And it makes me wonder.

Yet again we find the variations-in-repetition theme we’ve found throughout the chorus. This time the chorus line resolves as a trochaic trimeter:

And it / makes me / won-der.

We’ve see several different ways the core makes me wonder ends up resolving based on its context: It began as an anapestic dimeter, before becoming an iambic trimeter with the really, and now at last the and resolves it into its most natural paradigm: trochaic trimeter.

Not only has the pace of the song picked up, but the whole bridge has a certain lyric brevity, being just a pair of quatrains linked by the chorus. We now move into the second:

Your head is humming and it won’t go, in case you don’t know,
The piper’s calling you to join him,
Dear lady, can you hear the wind blow, and did you know
Your stairway lies on the whispering wind?

These lyrics are cadentially complex — it is, in fact, the most cadentially complex quatrain of the entire song. Let us examine it further, line by line:

Your head / is hum-/-ing, and / it won’t go, / in case / you don’t know

The quatrain starts with an iambic hexameter extended via a pair of anapests, which harks back to the song’s opening act, entirely in anapestic meter. But this is sped up by the next line,

The pipe-/-r’s call-/-ing you / to join him,

in an iambic tetrameter with a single amphibrach extending it to nine syllables. After having sped up, the next line now slows down with an amphibrach inserted into the iambic meter:

Dear la-/-dy, can / you hear / the wind blow, / and did / you know

But this pause is just a launchpoint for the act’s last line,

Your stair-/-way lies / on th’whisp-/-ring wind,

which sees Plant contract the into whispering to achieve iambic tetrameter and moan off into the song’s iconic guitar solo. This iambic resolution also previews where the song is going:

Act III

Coming out of the guitar solo, the song is in full crescendo mode now, and the final stanza is in and of itself something of a coda to the solo, which functions as the song’s climax:

And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
To be a rock and not to roll.

By this point, the song is moving very fast indeed, and unable to sustain a longer foot than a trochee or an iamb. We can see this when we scan this stanza:

And as / we wind / on down / the road
Our sha-/-dows tall-/-er than / our soul.
There walks / a la-/-dy we / all know
Who shines / white light / and wants / to show
How ev-/-ry-thing / still turns / to gold.
And if / you lis-/-ten ver-/-y hard
The tune / will come / to you / at last.
When all / are one / and one / is all
To be / a rock / and not / to roll.

The whole stanza is in iambic tetrameter — but more — when we scanned this stanza, it is in pure iambic tetrameter! It’s been deliberately constructed to be nothing but iambs! There’s no cadential play here, no elision, no trochees, no choriambs — no — this stanza is organized as an extended counterpoint to the anapestic ballad meter we saw at the beginning of the song, a sense of contrast and of evolution, and rhythmically the development into iambic meter mirrors the speeding up of sound as one proceeds from Renaissance musical norms to modern rock norms. It is also a stanza that develops as one long coda on the guitar solo, a sense that, after the instrumental interlude, the lyrics are the last thing thing to kick in. But it is still a coda, and as a coda, it is unable to sustain its energy, and as we hit that last line — To be a rock and not to rollllllllllll . . . — the song’s musical energy finally burns itself out.

But there is one thing more still to be said.

And she’s buy-/-ing a stair-/-way to heav’n.

It is, in fact, the song’s second line, tying the whole thing together into one neat little package. But it’s more than that: By closing this song on this line, one of anapestic trimeter, Plant interjects a note of uncertainty into it, an uncertainty we usually think of as “plaintiveness”. There is nostalgia here, yes, and the cadential slowdown comes apace with the musical and emotional crash that ends the final stanza, but Plant is suggesting something else — something more —

— that it is in fact the Renaissance ballad form that began this song that is truly timeless —

— that this form will still be there when all that can be said in rock has been said, and we have driven ourselves to exhaustion saying it —

— that it is the rock genre itself that is ephemeral; that folk music formats are the only real poetic and musical permanency.jim-warren-stairway-to-heaven_a-g-2540594-0


* This is also one of the most misheard lines in music, getting heard instead as

It’s just a sprinkling for the May Queen.

This makes sense. Clean sounds like the gerund and hence weakens here, which also yields a better overall prosodic resolution:

It’s just / a sprin-/-kling for / the May Queen.

“Ozymandias” and the irony of meter

Most analyses of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias” — as is common in the Romantic and post-Romantic schools of poetic analysis — focus almost exclusively on emotion and imagery. This is not necessarily a bad thing: “Ozymandias” is a poem of sublime lyric power, and the lyric mode has always been emotionally-focused. However, in doing so, these analyses miss another level on which “Ozymandias” is successful: it is a technical masterpiece.

Nearly every line from the poem is highly quotable, and this is no accident. Shelley was a master of meter, and in “Ozymandias” he purposefully breaks and reforms his meter to achieve the effect he’s looking for. In fact, the manner in which he does so, with the scansion variance correlating to the poem’s emotional climax, is arguably a commentary on meter itself (especially in light of the metric breakdown that occurred in poetry’s avant-garde over the latter half of the 19th century).

We see “Ozymandias”, like so many sonnets, open in iambic pentameter:

met / trav– / ler from / an an– / tique land
Who said, / Two vast / and trunk- / less legs / of stone

So far, so good. This is a fairly standard — albeit atmospheric — iambic couplet. Hints to come, however, occur as early as the third line, which scans:

Stand in / the des-ert . . . // . . . Near them, / on the sand,

First of all, the line opens with a trochee. But much more importantly, the reader is left hanging waiting to finish the foot -ert begins. By the time we reach the near, the dangling syllable has resolved the preceding iamb into an amphibrach, allowing near them to open the line’s second half as a trochee — thereby recalling the initial trochaic Stand in. In so doing, Shelley has achieved, purely through cadential manipulation, the effect of a speaker stalling out in their discourse before restarting, an effect concluded with the anapest on the sand, an anapest that returns the stress to the normal iambic pattern,* which then continues

Half sunk / a shat- / tered vis- / age lies, / whose frown,
and wrink- / led lip, / and sneer / of cold / com-mand

But Shelley doesn’t maintain the iambic meter any further. The next line

Tell that / its sculp- / tor well / those pas- / sions read,

begins with a trochee. This is more than just a minor metric stutter, though. The third and sixth lines having trochaic openings are a cue to the reader that things are not as they seem; that even in an extended iambic stretch Shelley is not content to let well enough alone. In fact, the four iambic feet following the trochee function as an aural illusion, a cue to the ear that keep going iambically, even though

Which yet / sur-vive, stamped on / these life- / less things,

continues to break the meter down, now with two trochees instead of just one. The tension between the aural trick and the collapsing meter climaxes with the next line

The hand / that mocked them, / and the heart / that fed;

where there are only, in fact, four stresses. But Shelley has already used trisyllabic feet and alternated trochees and iambs for choriambic effect. Thus the reader is cadentially unaware of the “missing foot” between that mocked and the heart, an aural illusion that allows this poem to sound iambic without actually being iambic. Much like the sculpture this poem describes, the meter employed describing it is problematic.**

But Shelley hasn’t yet reached the poem’s emotional payoff, and, like a fugal counterpoint, the iambic couplet reasserts itself:

And on / the ped- / des-tal, / these words / ap-pear:
My name / is Oz- / zy-man- / dias, King / of Kings;

 Lines which feel like a heroic couplet, and indeed, that’s the irony: they are. Have you noticed that Shelley only maintains iambic couplets and meanwhile keeps fragmenting them and breaking them down? This has all been foreshadowing for what comes next, the naked raw heroic pride overcoming even meter itself!

Look on my / works, ye / Migh-ty, and / des-pair!

A rhapsode of dactylic pride. So what are these “works” “ye Mighty” should “look on” “and despair”? At last the poem resolves itself:

No-thing / be-side / re-mains. Round the / de-cay
Of that / co-los- / sal Wreck, bound-less / and bare,
The lone / and lev- / vel sands stretch far / a-way.

But the resolution is noticeably not iambic. In fact, the iambic incipient Nothing beside remains (note how each individual word here is iambic) functions as an iambic reassertion of itself after the heroic prideful dactyl, but it too is immediately sabotaged by the trochaic Round the. In fact, this is the pattern that repeats itself over the poem’s coda: three iambic feet, then a trochee, then an iamb.

It is the longest stretch of regular meter (or something like meter) the poem has, and the final choriamb — a trochee-iamb pair — also yields a cadential diminuendo and thereby a stretch of yawning vastness.

In doing so Shelley is making a point: “Ozymandias” isn’t just about the overweening pride of a Pharaoh of old to the point where, even after all else is gone, the pride remains: it’s about meter itself. “Ozymandias” is a purposeful deconstruction of meter, a subjugation of heroic couplets, and then a reconstruction, but not a pure reconstruction either — a reconstruction with a twist. “Ozymandias” wants you not to think of free verse, but rather the possibilities available when you aren’t bound to the rigor of a single meter, such as Pope’s heroic couplets, and instead can treat meter like a musical theme, capable of developing variations and resolving itself.

This much has been ignored over the last two centuries of English poetry. It’s time to bring it back.


* You may also note that if you read this line without the long textual caesura (as most speakers do), it resolves as

Stand in / the des- / ert. Near / them, on / the sand,

This introduces the aural iambic illusion which will dominate the middle of the poem.

** It is also worth noting here that the “missing foot” in

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

demands resolution. It’s not for nothing this is a Petrarchan sonnet. This is the volta, the line that concludes the problematic introduced in the octave; in the sestet Shelley introduces two solutions in turn as an epic choice. In so doing he subtly rejects the heroic couplet.

Interpol’s “Roland”

One of my favorite songs is “Roland” by Interpol. It’s the ninth track on their debut studio album, Turn on the Bright Lights, and is quite possibly lyrically one of the strangest songs I have ever seen … that works.

Part of that is almost certainly Paul Banks’ singing style — which draws from Joy Division’s Ian Curtis’ bass-backed baritone — but is simultaneously stubbornly hopeful in a way that Curtis, who left his demons in his lyrics, never was.

Let’s take a look at how this plays out in their lyrics, shall we?

My best friend’s a butcher and he has sixteen knives

He carries them all over town — at least he tries

There is no real poetry in this opening couplet, is there? Nothing there to indicate it’s meant to be sung rather than spoken. But that is the point: this sounds like something the barfly next to you might say, and then you swing in because this has the ring of a good story. And, as if to set the scene, we get the following lyric — seemingly out of nowhere:

Oh look, it stopped snowing

The bent is getting increasingly conspiratorial. By directing your attention away from the story they’ve started, they’re whetting your appetite. (Incidentally, this sets time as well as place: it’s the middle of winter.)

My best friend’s from Poland and, um, he has a beard

Now we’re getting some more details about their best friend — namely, that he’s a Polish hipster. The second part of the lyric, set off by the spoken halt, is also curious. It seems almost as if they’re forcing a rhyme, but they haven’t had a lyric that ends with a word that rhymes with “beard”.

But they caught him with his case in a public place

That is what he had feared

Oooh, now things are getting juicy! Notice the internal rhyme between “case” and “place” — you’ve been completely suckered in, and you need to know what happens next. Also note that we have a rhyme for “beard” — “feared”. Putting the forced rhyme before the natural rhyme is unorthodox, to say the least.

He severed segments so secretly — you like that?

I like the alliteration in the first part (so much so that I always mentally insert “so” even if it isn’t in the lyric book). Ending on the query — you like that? — increases the conspiratorial bent to the song.

Incidentally, why is a butcher “severing segments so secretly” anyway? Isn’t a butcher’s job description essentially, well, “severing segments” with sharp knives? Methinks this Roland isn’t butchering critters he’s supposed to be butchering … but that is only ever hinted at in the lyrics, and hinted at here.

He always took the time to speak with me and I liked him for that

He was growing on me

He was growing on me

This lyric has a kludgy feel — more natural English should be talk to me — but, more importantly is the bit of emotional information Banks has allowed. Roland, our possibly serial-killer be-bearded Polish butcher, was Banks’ best friend because … he always took the time to speak with him? Also, didn’t Roland started out as Banks’ best friend … and now he’s just growing on him?

This is a clever subversion, and marks a deeper theme to the song: that Banks is lonely. And this is also what I mean by the difference between Banks’ voice and Curtis’. Ian Curtis’ lyrics suggest someone who felt apart from the world, rather than a part of it. But here, Paul Banks uses lyrics that intimately tie him to another person while at the same time subverting that established intimacy. We see this all the time in Interpol’s lyrics. Oftentimes songs will be subtly dedicated with names either in the lyrics or in the song title: Rosemary in “Evil”, Stella in “Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down”, and so on.

“Roland” also has another device — an unusual one for Interpol — and that is allusion. Roland, of course, is just not implied to be Banks’ best friend’s name: it’s also the name of the Frankish knight from The Song of Roland, the French national epic. Nor is the name Polish: in fact, it derives from Hruodland, a Germanic compound name meaning “famous land”. (Other examples of Germanic compound names include Richard, Robert, Roger, and Baldwin.)

So, all told, we have all the ingredients for a good song, all implied — narrative, emotional weight, and even more subtle elements such as allusion, all in a compact one-verse song.


Was this a good article? Do you like the idea of me bludgeoning a song’s lyrics to death? Do you have any ideas for other songs I ought to bludgeon to death? Leave a comment!

Interstella 5555

220px-interstella5555This is one of the more interesting artistic projects of the last decade.

In the early 2000s, the French house duo Daft Punk partnered with the Japanese anime house Toei Animation to produce what is essentially a feature-length music video for their Discovery album. As such, every song on Discovery has a music video associated with it, and–when put in the right order–they yield the full-length feature Interstella 5555.

There is no dialogue anywhere in the film, and only minimal sound effects. Instead, the story’s told through the songs and animation themselves. Needless to say, this is a stripped-down tale: alien rock stars are (plot twist!) abducted and brought to Earth, thralls of a corrupt manager, and pursued by a cowboy type of their own race. The cowboy frees them from their thralldom but at the cost of his own life; the band confronts the manager and his own greed kills him; once the band’s true heritage is revealed, Earthlings work together to send them back home. (Fame has its perks.)

Continue reading Interstella 5555