Blog Post

Two queries

Sometimes you notice an aesthetic effect or technique and assume that there must be a name for it. But how can you look it up? Maybe you can just ask.

So I have two questions.

1) Anaphora plus rhyme

There's an effect I like in rhymed poetry, where a rhyme-word is introduced in advance, early in the sequence of words that end with that very rhyme, which thus reappears kinda chiasmatically. It often works rhetorically as the climax of anaphora. Here's an example, from James Thomson (the eighteenth century poet); note how the word Thine begins and ends this sequence of lines addressed to Solitude:

Thine is th'unbounded breath of morn
Just as the dew-bent rose is born;
And while meridian fervours beat,
Thine is the woodland's dumb retreat;
But chief, when evening scenes decay,
And the faint landscape swims away,
Thine is the doubtful dear decline,
And that best hour of musing thine.

Thomson likes the effect, as in "Rule, Britannia":

To thee belongs the rural reign;
Thy cities shall with commerce shine;
All thine shall be the subject main,
And every shore it circles thine.

In this second example the encircling of the sea by the shores which share its British status makes the circular effect of the repetition particularly apposite.  And Thomson gives solitude a similarly extensive domain in the first passage, since all things, all days, may begin and end under its wing.  The effect in both passages is to make thine both subject and predicate through a redoubled inversion.  When the syntax puts thine first, as in all its repetitions but the last, it's also being treated as a predicate.  The predicate precedes the subject through poetic inversion.  I think the inversion can be rhetorical too, as in "The Lord's Prayer": "For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory."  I take it that despite the singular verb, we parse thine as a predicate there as well, with kingdom, power, and glory iterated subjects or a kind of extensional ellision of anaphora: "Thine is the kingdom; thine is the power; thine is the glory."  Anyhow, in Thomson thine certainly is certainly a predicate, as the "Rule, Britannia" extract makes clear, since there it abbreviates the opening formula: "To thee." That second example, with its alternation of predicate and subject (To thee; Thy Cities; All thine; thine), makes it clear that the last thine has now become the subject of the last clause: that's the achievement of the exhaustive list of possessives: now thine is the term that stands for everything denoted, and therefore the subject, despite -- or rather in conformity with -- the continued inversion of syntax.  I don't think the passage from the "Hymn to Solitude" quite effects that reversal, but it feels as though it does, and maybe we could say that it makes a predicate feel like a subject (which is one major effect that poetic inversion should be able to produce).

If "Rule, Britannia" seems too jingoistic to be stirring now (at least to us Americans), consider (Americans) this great Dickinson poem:

Snow beneath whose chilly softness
Some that never lay
Make their first Repose this Winter
I admonish Thee

Blanket Wealthier the Neighbor
We so new bestow
Than thine acclimated Creature
Wilt Thou, Austere Snow?

The whole request -- demand or prayer, address to an equal or peer by Dickinson herself, who though living is still an acclimated creature -- is blanketed by its snowy vocatives.  Rhyme here is like the second person version of an elegant signature, nailing and concluding the sentence that the name and substantive have also introduced.

Given the chiasmatic structure of this effect, it's not surprising that it's to be found all over Tennyson's In Memoriam.  Thus the second stanza of its proem presents a subtle redistribution of emphasis:


Thine are these orbs of light and shade;
Thou madest Life in man and brute;
Thou madest Death; and lo, thy foot
Is on the skull which thou hast made.

The shift from madest to made is part of what makes the stress on the word more prominent, moved as it is to the final position of the stanza.  He likes this syllabic reduction in these stanzas, so (quoting almost at random: this is from poem XL) you can see changes changing to a stanza ending change, after which none no more change shall see, here:

But thou art turn’d to something strange,
And I have lost the links that bound
Thy changes; here upon the ground,
No more partaker of thy change.

Now none no more shall change see. Or again, from poem LIV:

So runs my dream: but what am I?
An infant crying in the night:
An infant crying for the light:
And with no language but a cry.

This promotion of the lexical root has a decisive feel about it, as here, where the reduction of all language to a cry occurs as a reduction of the participle (crying) into the pure lexeme (cry).  But Tennyson also gets the effect of chiasmatic anaphora with exact repetition. Here's one more example (from poem XLVI), an example which still seems to thematize itself a little:

We ranging down this lower track,
The path we came by, thorn and flower,
Is shadow’d by the growing hour,
Lest life should fail in looking back.

So be it: there no shade can last
In that deep dawn behind the tomb,
But clear from marge to marge shall bloom
The eternal landscape of the past;

A lifelong tract of time reveal’d;
The fruitful hours of still increase;
Days order’d in a wealthy peace,
And those five years its richest field.

O Love, thy province were not large,
A bounded field, nor stretching far;
Look also, Love, a brooding star,
A rosy warmth from marge to marge.

That phrase, marge to marge, proves itself here: the warmth fills up the poem to its right margin.

Anyhow, this chiasmatic repetition concluding on a rhyme word that nails it down is the phenomenon I'm interested in.  William Wimsatt scrupulously distinguishes between rhyme and semantic repetition: rhyme is arbitrary and its echoes quasi-accidental, whereas semantic repetition is a more meaningful and thus intentional feature of the language of the discourse.  But it seems that in cases like this his distinction is too strict, since it's clear that the first, non-line-ending uses of word or phrase prepare for their resolution within rhyme at the end of the couplet or stanza or passage, just as arbitrary onset words for rhymes do.  Indeed it's as though they are filtered through these onset words -- decline, shade, I, large, etc. -- and then return to themselves transmuted into a rhyme that brings form and content together.

It's a neat trick, and I wonder whether it's been named?  Does anyone know?

2) Convenient but incongruous action

This is a question about drama or screen writing: sometimes, a writer needs a character to do, say, notice, or evaluate something, and there's no one in the dramatis personae perfectly appropriate to that local and transient task.  So the writer will have a character go briefly (and she hopes unnoticeably) our of character to do the task the narrative needs at that moment. Thus in Richard II, Shakespeare enlists Northumberland -- who hates Richard and is persistently full of scorn for him -- to describe him to Bullingbrook:

Sorrow and grief of heart
Makes him speak fondly, like a frantic man
Yet he is come.

Since Northumberland would never be moved to describe Richard this way, we have to assume that Shakespeare had no one better he could efficiently move into this perspective.  So he gives it to Northumberland.  And that in turn tells us that he thinks the description is sufficiently important that it matters to have someone say it, even at the expense of introducing some local incoherence into Northumberland's character.  That's a good thing to know.  But again, my question is, given that this sort of thing happens all the time (especially in TV series, where the A-plot, B-plot and comic runner will sometimes be stitched together by using a main character from one plot as a convenient window or catalyst in another),  do (say) film writers or theater people have a term of art for such an opportunistic use of a character?

William Flesch's picture

William Flesch is the author, most recently, of Comeuppance: Costly Signaling, Altruistic Punishment, and Other Biological Components of Fiction (Harvard, 2008), and The Facts on File Companion to 19th Century British Literature.  He teaches the history of poetry as well as the theory of poetic and narrative form at Brandeis, and has been International Chair Professor at the National Taipei University of Technology (2012) and Old Dominion Fellow of the Humanities Council and Visiting Professor at Princeton (2014-15).