Language that uses poetic meter, knowingly or unknowingly, is among the most powerful. Perhaps the most famous line in all of English literature is “To be or not to be, that is the question.”
This line from Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” falls almost perfectly into the iambic meter of one soft stress followed by one hard stress, depicted here with hard stresses capitalized: “to BE, or NOT, to BE, that IS, the QUES, tion” (the last soft syllable being a minor exception). These metrical rules apply to myriad phrases and sayings, such as “the BEST, laid PLANS, of MICE, and MEN,” and “WHEN in, ROME do, AS the, ROMans.”
Our first piece is from the ancient Greek poet Homer’s “Iliad,” with a superb translation by 18th-century English poet Alexander Pope. As you will hear, his musical language, structured with meter and repetition, has a feeling of movement to it that brings to life the fighting in the half-mythical Trojan War.
After that, we have a poem from living Californian poet Lorna Davis, who took second place in the Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 Poetry Competition. Here, musical words bring to life a very different topic, and the lush rhymes and meter mirror the beauty that can be found in an ordinary day. Note that the meter here is two soft beats followed by one hard beat, so the first line should be read “as i MUDD, le my WAY, through a REG, ular DAY …”
Be sure to read these out loud—and enjoy!
Excerpt from Book 4 of The Iliad
By Homer / Translated by Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
Now shield with shield, with helmet helmet closed,
To armor armor, lance to lance opposed,
Host against host with shadowy squadrons drew,
The sounding darts in iron tempests flew,
Victors and vanquished joined unrestrained cries,
And shrilling shouts and dying groans arise;
With streaming blood the slippery fields are dyed,
And slaughtered heroes swell the dreadful tide.
As torrents roll, and streams increase their fill,
With rage impetuous, down their echoing hills.
Songs of a Day
By Lorna Davis
As I muddle my way through a regular day,
And my feeling of weariness grows,
I am riddled with blue in an indigo hue
And a dark fog around me that shows.
But my garden is where I can work in fresh air,
And my blues turn a rosier shade;
As I clip and I rake, with each breath that I take,
All that dullness inside starts to fade.
And the song of my heart bubbles up like a spring,
And my shadows are lifted and lightly take wing.
As my body starts swaying, I quietly sing
And I feel a connectedness to everything …
At the dimming of day, as I’m tapping away
At the keyboard that sits on my desk,
I am caught by the sight of the setting sun’s light
And a view that is quite picturesque.
In that moment I find there’s no work in my mind,
Just the view that is waiting outside,
And I’m crossing the floor to the sliding glass door,
And I eagerly open it wide.
And the song of my soul rushes in on the breeze
Like the rippling of water and wind in the trees,
And it cleanses my mind as it fills me with ease
Rising up from the ground through my feet and my knees …
So I head up the hill with a need to fulfill,
To see more of this glorious sky,
With its crimson and pink, and that spun glass I think
Must be cirrus clouds streaming up high.
When I get to the top I turn ’round and I stop,
Stricken dumb by the beauty I see:
Lilac hills touched with green, and a gold sun between
Slipping into a molten-glass sea.
And the songs of my ancestors hum in my bones,
With sharp clapping rhythms and resonant tones,
With high ululations and deep-throated moans
That sing to the sky and the trees and the stones …
Strolling back to my house, insignificant mouse
That I am on this marvelous world,
I am blessed with the sight, as we all are each night,
Of the stars and the darkness unfurled.
As cerulean blue turns a deep midnight hue,
I can seek out our faithful north star,
And as diamonds are spread in the bowl overhead,
I am struck by how lucky we are.
And the song of the universe tumbles through space
Full of beauty and power, rhythm and grace,
And the light is its voice as it sings through each place
And it spills from the sky to my uplifted face …
As this day finds its end, I must ponder again
All that glumness I felt at its start,
And how rarely we see all this real majesty
That can fill and restore every heart.
And this earth, oh this Earth! The bright world of our birth
Is a miracle in every way.
As contentment runs deep, I am lulled into sleep
By the lingering songs of the day.
Evan Mantyk is president of the Society of Classical Poets (ClassicalPoets.org). He teaches literature and history in upstate New York. You may send your comments, feedback, and, of course, poetry to Submissions@ClassicalPoets.org