Personal anthology: Thomas Hardy

I've been learning some very basic music theory lately (thank you, Open Yale Courses — it's so much easier to be an autodidact in the age of podcasts and Creative Commons educational materials). And one of the first things I realized was that I wish I'd known more about musical meter during all the years when I was learning about poetic meter.

In the lecture course I just finished listening to, the Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" came up as an example of a triple rhythm — specifically, 3/4 time. (Hum it to yourself, tap your foot, and you can hear it: PICture yourSELF on a BOAT in a RIVer with TANgerine TREES…) 3/4 is also the oom-pah-pah rhythm of the great majority of waltzes, which, if you imagine waltzing to the Beatles' trippy psychedelia, only adds to the surreality of it all.

Anyway, I was listening to this example and I suddenly thought "Huh. Dactyls." The dactyl, for those of you who didn't spend your education obsessing over this kind of thing, is the metrical foot with one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones (DUM-da-da). And "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is full of three-syllable words with a dactylic stress pattern: tangerine, marmalade, cellophane, looking-glass, towering. I'd never particularly thought about the meter of "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," or made the connection between dactylic meters and waltzing, but there it was.

Dactylic meters can be hard to pull off in English.* They can sound heavy (Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" is a standard example: "HALF a league, HALF a league, HALF a league, ONward"), but they're also sometimes used for comic effect. There's no intrinsic reason why a triple meter would be funnier, or more serious, than a duple one, but if you're used to the predominant iambic meter of a lot of poetry in English (da-DUM-da-DUM), anything else is going to stand out.

All of which is a rather long preamble to this Thomas Hardy poem, which is part of a group of poems about the memory of his first wife, Emma Gifford, who died in 1912, and which came to mind when I started thinking about triple meters:

The Voice

Woman much missed, how you call to me, call to me,
Saying that now you are not as you were
When you had changed from the one who was all to me,
But as at first, when our day was fair.

Can it be you that I hear? Let me view you, then,
Standing as when I drew near to the town
Where you would wait for me: yes, as I knew you then,
Even to the original air-blue gown!

Or is it only the breeze, in its listlessness
Travelling across the wet mead to me here,
You being ever dissolved to wan wistlessness,
Heard no more again far or near?

Thus I; faltering forward,
Leaves around me falling,
Wind oozing thin through the thorn from norward,
And the woman calling.

— Thomas Hardy (Satires of Circumstance, 1914)

If he'd kept up the dactylic meter of the first couple of stanzas
throughout the poem, it wouldn't have been as striking; but as the remembered image of Emma that Hardy conjures in the second stanza dwindles into a ghostly voice in the wind, the triple rhythm starts falling apart along with it. "Heard no more again far or near?" marks the shift; it's as though syllables have started dropping out of the pattern we've come to expect, slowing down the bursts of energy we heard in the previous stanzas. And with the next line — "Thus I; faltering forward," with the only trace of the previous rhythm being the word "faltering" — we're in a different world entirely, a slower and sadder and bleaker one.

This was going to be a simple commonplace-book post, but I got a bit carried away. Prosody geekery and music theory: two great tastes that taste great together!

* The dactyl was the basic foot of ancient Greek and Latin epic, but those meters are based on syllable length rather than stress, so it's a different kind of sound altogether. I once encountered a verse translation of Homer that attempted dactylic hexameter in English, and the lines just sounded interminably exhausting.

5 Responses to “Personal anthology: Thomas Hardy”

  1. dale says:

    Homer into English dactylic hexameters? (Shudder) Sounds awful. I always think of dactyls and anapests as colloquial meters. since they’re much more the rhythm of ordinary English speech. (Hence the tenderness and intimacy of Hardy’s lines.)
    Not that Homer can’t be folksy on occasion, but usually he’s dignified, if not stately.”So like sing in me muse and through me tell the story of the dude who was skilled / in all ways of contending . . .” No, no no!

  2. dale says:

    (Oh. Those were anapests. But, like, it’s the same thing, man.)

  3. Amanda says:

    Hee! You’ve just reminded me of a bit of Tennyson I read ages ago. He wasn’t a fan of English dactylic hexameter either.
    I was trying to work Swinburne into this post, because he uses anapests all over the place, but his is an entirely different aesthetic (much more classicizing, and he foregrounds the meter so much that I have a hard time paying attention to the sense of the words). Maybe in another post…

  4. Amanda French says:

    That’s interesting, the idea that the dactyl is a colloquial foot — I’d never thought of that, but I’d say it’s true. It encompasses comedy but isn’t limited to that. I noticed (and tweeted) recently that dangerous, menacing, and sinister are all dactyls, which struck me as funny precisely because of the dactyl’s reputation as comedic. But it’s all over normal speech giving it emphasis: everything everywhere all of it emphasis.
    That’s weird that you never connected 3/4 time with triple meters, Amanda. It never occurred to me *not* to connect them, so that my own epiphany about meter and music was about the disconnect. It’s true that if you have a strict triple meter you can set it to a waltz tune, but the dirty secret I discovered through writing song lyrics is that you can add and subtract syllables with abandon without changing the time signature / rhythm of the song. It doesn’t go the other way; lots of times you can’t jam song lyrics into a poetic meter, or at least not into a strict meter, or at least if you do you’ll be doing violence to the way the song actually works.
    Some astute prosodist I once read pointed out that common meter (8 6 8 6) is simply a 4/4 song with room to breathe: musicians wouldn’t think of it as 8 6 8 6 but as 8 8 8 8.

  5. Amanda says:

    I’d noticed the adding and subtracting syllables thing in songs as well; I just don’t think I’d thought enough about musical meter to work through all the connections. And I’ve never written a song, so I didn’t have the first-hand experience of trying to fit syllables to music.
    My high school’s official song (which was in 4/4, now that I think of it) had one verse that always offended my prosodic ear, because an unaccented syllable fell on a strong musical beat: “DEAR alma MAter, loyAL we’ll always BE…” Urgh.