Kinds of Rhyme: “She Walks in Beauty,” “Dulce et Decorum Est,” “Base Details,” & “Blighters”
A relatively short bit today, illustrating a few kinds of rhyme, including (for starters) “conjunctive” and “disjunctive” rhymes. Those terms are not, so far as I know, in common use. But they serve a good enough turn. (I dropped “disjunctive rhyme” into Google Books and, as of this writing, came up with two results; “conjunctive rhyme” also yields only two.) I aim to deal here largely with disjunctive (or ironic) rhymes. But for purposes of contrast I think it best to start with a fine example, one of the best I know, of conjunctive rhymes.
Following is Lord Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty,” several rhymes in which have always seemed to me ideally “conjunctive”—by which I mean that the rhymes harmonize and affiliate words not in sound merely but in sense also. Rhymes like these don’t simply hold the lines and stanzas together; they exceed “infrastructural” purposes, so to speak. They signify; they’re a significant feature of the poem’s meaning, all the more so as they work on us in ways equally auditory and rational.
She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
I’ll concern myself chiefly with rhyming, but some brief discussion of the theme and “argument” of the lyric is called for, given that the rhymes complement (and complete) both.
But Byron’s lady isn’t out for beauty. She possesses it such that every footfall she takes “walks” her more deeply “in” it. Here we have a case where the sometimes-equivocal nature of English prepositions (in this case “in”) does good work. She inhabits beauty, whether “walking” or not (it’s no question of her having a lovely gait, though doubtless she does). Beauty hangs about her like an atmosphere as she moves, or, to be more precise, like a climate (or “clime”). But given the long and curious history of “walk” in English—see the note at the end of this entry, quoted from the Oxford English Dictionary—I think more is a-foot, here, than a stroll. The moral emphases brought out in the second and third stanzas—having to do with “grace,” “goodness,” and “innocence,” lest anyone suppose Byron to have his eye only on the woman’s physical beauty;—as I say, these moral emphases bring out in “walk” a more vocational sense of the word (as in idioms speaking of what “walk of life” one moves in). Scriptural precedents come to mind, owing to the muted religiosity of the last twelve lines. The O.E.D. tells us (see the image above): “Chiefly after biblical usage: to pass one’s life; to conduct oneself, behave (well, badly, wisely, unwisely, etc.). Often with reference to a metaphorical ‘path’ or ‘way.’” As in these examples, from Tyndale‘s translation of the Bible: “1526 Bible (Tyndale) Luke i. 6 Booth‥walked [Gk. πορευόμενοι] in all the lawes and ordinacions of the lorde. 1530 Bible (Tyndale) Gen. To walke with god is to lyve godly and to walke in his commaundementes.” Byron’s lady “walks in beauty” in these vocational senses, too (not merely in some “atmospheric” sense). Beauty is her calling. She goes about her walk of life in all innocence and purity; her beauty is not of the flesh alone. Byron takes care to distinguish her “winning” charms from those that might, in a lesser woman, a more worldly woman, be turned to cunning (her smiles “tell of days in goodness spent,” not of days spent in coy flirtation, say). But if “in” and “walk” work with some complexity, so does that initial simile: “like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies…” The “likeness” has to do at once with the woman and with the night, which the rhymes will soon affiliate anyway, in their perfectly conjunctive way: “skies”/ “eyes.” The very climate (again: “clime”) mirrors her, and she mirrors it: “all that’s best of dark and bright / Meet in her aspect and her eyes,” where “aspect” works as in O.E.D. sense III.10 (“The look which one wears; expression of countenance; countenance, face”), and where “meet” works principally in sense 4. a.: “intr. Of two or more things: to come into contact with each other; to come together so as to occupy the same place, or follow the same line or course; to run or flow together.” I say “principally” in sense 4.a., because certainly it is “meet” (fit, proper) that this “meeting” of “all that’s best of dark and bright” should take place where it does—in her aspect.
Take the rhymes in stanza one as phrasal and they are all the more conjunctive: “like the night,” “dark and bright,” “tender light” “mellows” in this woman’s eyes. She’s no “gaud,” nor is she “gaudy.” A “gaud” is a device, a pretense, a bit of trickery or cunning (O.E.D. sense 1 for the second entry for the word as a noun). The poem affirms this later, as I’ve implied already: her smiles may “win” hearts, but not for “sport” (another meaning of “gaud”). And as for “gaudy day,” heaven denies to that what the woman has. “Gaudy” means not simply unduly dressed-out or luxurious, with intimations here of sinful indulgence (hence that admonitory “heaven,” in its extended use). It means also “full of trickery” (O.E.D. sense 2 for the second entry for the word as adjective). The poem soon tells us (as I’ve suggested) that our woman is neither “worldly” in the uses she makes of her beauty—which is to say she “uses” it not at all, mirror of the heavens that she is—nor a “gaud” in any sense. Having said so much, I come now to the best of the rhyming, which I’ll also take in phrases, from stanza two: a “nameless grace” takes its “dwelling place” “o’er her face.” Where else should grace “dwell” but in this face? Grace abides with this woman, even as (in her calling, so to speak) she “walks in” beauty. Never did rhymes more happily bring together such words as these: grace, face, place. Byron places the grace where it is only meet that it dwell: in the “softly-lightened” countenance of a “raven-tressed,” “serenely sweet” (where “sweet” means “pure”) woman, to whom heaven itself—for though beautiful, she is innocent and utterly untouched by guile—imparts all that’s best of dark and bright.
But all this has been for purposes of contrast to what follows. From the finely conjunctive rhymes of “She Walks in Beauty,” I turn now to some notably disjunctive rhymes from the poetry of that great jangle we call the First World War. Incidentally, for a fine web-log devoted to the poetry of war, and in large part to that of WWI, by all means visit Tim Kendall’s site, where, among other things, you’ll find an interesting discussion of the merits of the poem I’m about to treat—one of the best known poems to have come out of the Great War, Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est“:
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines† that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
†Five-nines: a type of artillery used by the Germans, often to deliver poison gas; so called because of their caliber (5.9 inches, or 150mm).
As I suggest, Tim Kendall (and a number of respondents) have a good debate as to the poem’s merits (and, to a certain degree, as to its verbal details). The poem may well be over-rated, a bit easy in its condemnations. It is most certainly over-taught, very likely because of its easy condemnations. Owen didn’t make the poem for the classroom, of course; but it is tendentious, and therefore classroom-ready. Some see in its wholesale derision of “The Old Lie” a claim that it is never fitting and proper to die for one’s country, as if every war were what World War I was—as low and mean in motive (for example) as W.E.B. DuBois makes it out in “The Souls of White Folk,” a scathing essay (and essential reading for anyone who’d discuss the poetry of the Great War) collected in his 1920 volume Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil: “In the awful cataclysm of World War, where from beating, slandering, and murdering us the white world turned temporarily aside to kill each other, we of the Darker Peoples looked on in mild amaze. Among some of us, I doubt not, this sudden descent of Europe into hell brought unbounded surprise; to others, over wide area, it brought the Schaden Freude of the bitterly hurt; but most of us, I judge, looked on silently and sorrowfully, in sober thought, seeing sadly the prophecy of our own souls. Here is a civilization that has boasted much. Neither Roman nor Arab, Greek nor Egyptian, Persian nor Mongol ever took himself and his own perfectness with such disconcerting seriousness as the modern white man. We whose shame, humiliation, and deep insult his aggrandizement so often involved were never deceived. We looked at him clearly, with world-old eyes, and saw simply a human thing, weak and pitiable and cruel, even as we are and were. These super-men and world-mastering demi-gods listened, however, to no low tongues of ours, even when we pointed silently to their feet of clay.” In “Dulce et Decorum Est,” Owen writes nothing political (nothing complexly political anyway); he has no concern with the roots and meaning of the war—which is merely to say that, unlike DuBois, he’s neither a historiographer nor an African-American judging the war in its full colonial contexts. His poetry doesn’t engage such things as the following (again, from “The Souls of White Folk”), and not only because he is British and not American, for DuBois’s larger point has to do with white folk everywhere (including Owen), and with the empires they made and fought over (and later fought to retain): “Conceive this nation, of all human peoples,” he says of America, “engaged in a crusade to make the ‘World Safe for Democracy’! Can you imagine the United States protesting against Turkish atrocities in Armenia, while the Turks are silent about mobs in Chicago and St. Louis; what is Louvain compared with Memphis, Waco, Washington, Dyersburg, and Estill Springs? In short, what is the black man but America’s Belgium, and how could America condemn in Germany that which she commits, just as brutally, within her own borders?”
Woodrow Wilson’s Old Lie (delivered before congress on April 2, 1917) about “making the world safe for democracy” and “planting peace upon the tested foundations of political liberty” is not quite what Owen takes from Horace’s dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. But so far as DuBois is concerned, it may as well be. Nevertheless, two general objections to Owen are these: his poem is somehow not discriminating enough in the politics its last lines inevitably engage; and also that, as a portrait of a horrible gas attack, its at times sensational rhetoric makes a reader feel petty in taking issue with anything about the poem. It forestalls objection, whether to its implied pacifism (it is never fitting to die for one’s country) or to its style.
Set all that aside for the moment, or visit the web-log I’ve already twice mentioned (with links) for further discussion of the poem’s merits (dubious or not). For my part, I admire certain touches in the poem. What other than a gas attack (or a G.O.P. presidential primary) would make a “devil” (if not The Devil) “sick of sin”? Are there times when even He has had enough? Then there’s the bitterly happy (if inevitable) conflation of asphyxiation and drowning. But Owen is so busy about his business in the poem as to fetch in all manner of metaphors, bringing together, in a way some find jarring, ideas of burning and drowning, or “natural” causes of death (cancer) with deaths most “unnatural” (from, say, phosgene gas); or, at times, straining diction to the point of oddity (“cud,” whose figurative value is in any case hard, here, to assess precisely).
But as to the poem’s merits, such as they are, I want to take a closer look at its last four lines, which are quite well-rhymed, in a highly disjunctive fashion.
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
I find it felicitous (if one can speak of felicity here) that Owen should rhyme “zest” with the copular “est” that equates the two notions he wishes to put forever out of equation (it is “sweet and proper” to “die for one’s country”). And consider that enjambment, whereby The Old Lie, as he calls it, is cut off precisely here, at “est,” before its predication; the enjambment serves more than necessities of ironic rhyme, or of rhyme of any kind. No, it allows for a fitting and proper termination to a poem that finds its terminus in a life cut short (that of the young soldier who’s now to haunt our dreams, if Owen has his way in the poem). A truncated last line for a poem about a truncated life, and all rounded out with a rhyme of the most highly disjunctive order (a cross-linguistic rhyme, to boot): “glory”/ “mori.” Some may find this a bit too easy. But likely that’s because it is so terrifically easy to see. And who knows but that the rhyming of an English word with one from a dead language of the sort men like Owen studied in school, Latin, illustrates something of the folly (for Owen) of quoting ancient poets like Horace (from whose Odes the Latin tag is taken) for modern purposes the ancients could never have conceived: sending men sweetly off for mass slaughter by phosgene gas, benzyl bromide, chlorine, hydrogen cyanide (Prussic acid), chloromethyl chloroformate, etcetera.
If I were fierce, and bald, and short of breath,
I’d live with scarlet Majors at the Base,
And speed glum heroes up the line to death.
You’d see me with my puffy petulant face,
Guzzling and gulping in the best hotel,
Reading the Roll of Honour. “Poor young chap,”
I’d say—”I used to know his father well;
Yes, we’ve lost heavily in this last scrap.”
And when the war is done and youth stone dead,
I’d toddle safely home and die—in bed.
The first thing to notice is the title, “Base Details”; a fine enough pun, with a barb in it. Each word of the title has its sweet and fitting meaning in martial contexts: military bases, and military details (missions, errands). But each also its meaning in English generally. “Base” (O.E.D. sense 9 for the word as adjective): “Low in the moral scale; without dignity of sentiment; reprehensibly cowardly or selfish, despicably mean; opposed to high-minded.” Or O.E.D. sense 10: “Befitting an inferior person or thing; degraded or degrading, unworthy, menial.” As for “details”: well, Sassoon certainly gives them to us as to the “base” men in the rear who constitute the officer corps. The first of the highly disjunctive rhymes brings the two together, of course: “base” / “face.” Well, such faces these men in fact have, “puffy” and “petulant” as they are in countenance (“toddle,” with its infantile and infirm associations, is perfect in that last line); and they’re happily ignorant and crass in their high dispatch, drinking champagne behind the lines, and talking of “poor young chaps.” Chaps whom they scrap, as it happens, in “scraps.” Something in the rhyme brings out the latent verbal sense of “scrap” (in this case, “to throw away”), though it is here grammatically a noun. These officers speak with the very “breath” of “death” until they toddle off home to their dead beds (which shall in time become death beds), alive. All very well done, even if only in a caustic, unassuming little poem (Sassoon doesn’t take himself as seriously as does Owen in “Dulce et Decorum Est”).
And take another of Sassoon’s, also notable for its rhyming, “Blighters”:
The House is crammed: tier beyond tier they grin
And cackle at the Show, while prancing ranks
Of harlots shrill the chorus, drunk with din;
‘We’re sure the Kaiser loves our dear old Tanks!’
I’d like to see a Tank come down the stalls,
Lurching to rag-time tunes, or ‘Home, sweet Home,’
And there’d be no more jokes in Music-halls
To mock the riddled corpses round Bapaume.
A “blighter” is a contemptible person (in UK slang), and, of course, a blight is a blight—a plague, a disease. We have to do here (though quite differently than in Owen) with those who bring the blight of war on, or anyway urge it on, celebrate it. “Blighters” is bitterly wry, whereas “Dulce et Decorum Est” is bitterly angry; which way of taking the war best suits him, each reader shall decide.
But whatever the case, both poems concern The Old Lie, at least insofar as “Blighters” trades in patriotic clamor, here set where perhaps it best belongs—in a cheap music hall animated by “prancing harlots.” But the best of the poem surely are the sets of rhymes on which the two stanzas depend. “Tanks” ironically (and ridiculously) awakens the military sense of “ranks.” Dear old tanks and prancing ranks [of soldiers]: what else could a jade of a jingo hope for? And then we have “Home, Sweet, Home” set in ironic harmony with “round Bapaume.” The latter town was an objective during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 (more than 1,000,000 casualties all told), and the site of the Second Battle of Bapaume in August and September of 1918 (a part of what came to be known as the Allies’ Hundred Days Offensive: again, more than 1,000,000 casualties). Bapaume was no sort of “home” during the war. And as those “harlots” (really, dancing-girls) are there to remind us, there is always something offensive, something base, in celebrating such things as tanks. The last of the wicked word-play comes in “riddled,” which means, here, torn apart by gun-fire, but which, when placed in the orbit of “mocked” and “jokes,” assumes its other meaning, leaving us with something cryptic indeed, and also with what this little poem poses: the enigma, the conundrum of war. And one wonders whether Sassoon somehow feels back of this word “riddle” its Old English, and much broader, senses (as the O.E.D. lays them out): “In Old English the word had a much wider range of senses than in Middle English and later use, e.g. ‘counsel, consideration; debate; conjecture, interpretation; imagination; example.’” Sassoon’s poetry affords us something of all of this, to be sure; and requires something of it all of his readers, too.
* * *
I’ve tried, above, to show how intriguing it can be to distinguish one kind of rhyme from another. But what I’ve said only begins the matter. For a discussion of a poem by Dickinson touching (partly) on her way of rhyming, click here. For a list of entries within The Era of Casual Fridays that concern poetics in general (to one degree or another anyhow), click here.
When time allows, I’ll write up a few things about the sonnets of Gwendolyn Brooks; she builds them out of near rhymes, and for good reason. From her memoir, Report from Part One: “[“Gay Chaps at the Bar” is] a sonnet series in off-rhyme, because I felt it was an off-rhyme situation—I did think of that. I first wrote the one sonnet, without thinking extensions. I wrote it because of a letter I got from a soldier who included that phrase in what he was telling me; and then I said, there are other things to say about what’s going on at the front and all, and I’ll write more poems, some of them based on the stuff of letters that I was getting from several soldiers, and I felt it would be good to have them all in the same form, because it would serve my purposes throughout.”
Then there are such fine things as Ben Jonson‘s “Fit of Rhyme Against Rhyme.” And of course Andrew Marvell‘s wonderfully rhymed poem, composed in happy reply to Milton’s statement about rhyme as against blank verse. Marvell concludes:
Well mightst thou scorn thy readers to allure
With tinkling rhyme, of thine own sense secure;
While the Town-Bayes writes all the while and spells,
And like a pack-horse tires without his bells.
Their fancies like our bushy points appear,
The poets tag them; we for fashion wear.
I too, transported by the mode, offend,
And while I meant to praise thee must commend.
The verse created like thy theme sublime,
In number, weight, and measure, needs not rhyme.
I highlight the salient couplet. Marvell’s “offense”? That rhymed couplets compel him—though he might well have arranged things otherwise, given his skill—to use the word “commend” rather than “praise.” As to how (as Jonson points out in his “fit”) rhyme may deform diction and syntax: that’s a matter for another entry. I hope, in due course, to get round to all these matters here in my Era of Casual Fridays. But “due course” on casual Fridays takes a while.
N.B. From the O.E.D. entry for “walk,” as promised above: “Etymology: A merging of two distinct words: an Old English strong verb of Class VII (wealcan), and an Old English weak verb of Class II (wealcian), both cognate with Middle Dutch walken (weak verb) to knead, work with the hand, to press together, to full (cloth) (Dutch walken to knead, work with the hand, to full (cloth), (regional, reflexive) to roll), Middle Low German walken to knead, to full (cloth) (German regional (Low German) walken to knead, work with the hand, to full (cloth), to beat, thrash), Old High German walcan (strong verb) to press or mat together, to felt (attested only in past participle giwalcan, and in the prefixed form firwalcan, in the same sense; Middle High German walken (strong verb, later weak) to roll up, (reflexive) to roll, (transitive and intransitive) to move back and forth, to go (rare), to full (cloth), to beat, thrash, to fight, to stamp out, German walken (weak verb) to full (cloth), to beat, thrash, (regional) to move back and forth), Old Icelandic válka (weak verb) to toss about, to toy with, to ponder over, (reflexive) to wallow (Icelandic volka to rumple, mess up), Norwegian valke (weak verb) to full (cloth), Norwegian (Nynorsk) valka (weak verb) to press, squeeze, Old Swedish valka (weak verb) to roll (something) about (Swedish valka to full (cloth)), early modern Danish valcke (weak verb) to knead, work with the hand, to full (cloth) (Danish valke (weak verb) to full (cloth), (regional) to work with the hand, to roll (something) about, to beat, thrash), probably < the same Indo-European base as Sanskrit valg-to leap up and down, prance, flap, although the precise semantic connection is unclear. The Germanic word (chiefly in the sense ‘to full (cloth)’ and extended uses) was borrowed into post-classical Latin as gualcare to full (cloth) (13th cent. in an Italian source), and into several Romance languages, as Italian gualcare to full (cloth) (end of the 13th cent.), Corsican valcá to trample, Occitan gauchar to trample (1507), French regional (chiefly eastern) gaucher to full (cloth); compare also post-classical Latin walcatorium building for the fulling of cloth (875 in a German source), gauchatorium fulling-mill (from 1315 in French sources), Italian gualchiera fulling-mill (1265), French regional (Swiss) gaucherie fulling-mill (17th cent.). . . It is remarkable that to the end of the Old English period the primary sense of the verb (strong and weak) is ‘to roll’, and that from the beginning of the Middle English period it is ‘to move about, travel’. The explanation of this apparently sudden change may perhaps be that the latter sense had, in fact, arisen in Old English as a colloquial usage, and as such was not deemed fitting to be used in writing until the changed literary circumstances of the Middle English period. The development of sense appears to have been from ‘to roll, fluctuate, move back and forth’ to ‘to move to and fro, roam about, wander here and there’ to ‘to journey, travel, go on foot’; compare the parallel development of a sense ‘to go’ in Middle High German, although, unlike in English, this remained rare. By the end of the 15th cent. the new sense ‘to move about, travel’ had entirely superseded the original sense.”