This was the Seminar I gave while at University during the late 1990s. It was the precursor for my Essay NARRATIVE POETRY so is identical in places. However, there is an oratorial nuance that underlies this version. I have left in the ‘Read from ….’ lines, as they show how there were several larger portions of text read from the relevant works. The Medieval texts were read, fluently, by Professor Andrew Taylor to demonstrate the nature of these texts as the Medieval audience would have perceived them – via the sound of the words as well as the allegorical narrative content.
Before the written word, verse was the form in which oral tales were told. And when the written form began to appear, its form was still that of verse – alliterative verse with patterns of syllabic and spatial stress, i.e. metre and caesura, within each line, and, in some cases, rhyming patterns. Their content was mainly of two kinds – heroic tales of super-powerful men battling super-natural enemies (monsters, dragons) as in Beowulf (C 8-10th), and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (about 1400); and allegories where abstract human traits were personified in order to drive home a homily on religious behaviour as in the C14th works, Piers the Plowman, Pearl and Canterbury Tales.
Read from Piers the Plowman
With the advent of the novel in the mid-eighteenth century, the narrative function of verse was usurped, leaving it as a vehicle for the expression of ideas – love, hate, revenge, pity, ambition; of ideals – political, social, cultural; and of nature – land-and-sea-scapes, flora, fauna, artifacts, and humans. At this time poets were exploring ideas rather than expounding narratives, mixing story with contemplation.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (pp. 567-581) is not a short poem, but equates with a short story in length, and in content. Chaucer by William Wadsworth Longfellow (pp. 679-680) presents a portrait of a poet that could be expanded into a short story. The Listeners by Walter de la Mare (pp. 906-7) is a narrative belonging to the fiction fantasy/thriller genre and reminds me just a little of J B Priestley’s short story Benighted. Snake by D H Lawrence (pp. 952-4) tells of a confrontation between man/culture and nature. The Hunchback in the Park by Dylan Thomas (pp. 1178-9) makes a social comment, while Boy at the Window by Richard Wilbur (p. 1222) comments on cultural perspectives. Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers and Living in Sin by Adrienne Rich (p. 1309) provide narrative cameos of modern life, with a wealth of information in a few words.
My task is to ascertain how these poems tell their narratives, and in what way they differ from short fiction, and to point out their similarities. The definition of narrative is a significant factor. According to Abrams in A Glossary of Literary Terms,
a narrative is a story, whether in prose or verse, involving events, characters, and what the characters say and do…. Narratologists treat a narrative not in the traditional way, as a fictional representation of life, but as a systematic formal construction … the way that narrative discourse fashions a “story” … into the organized structure of a literary plot.(Abrams, 1993, pp. 123-4)
To facilitate the construction of the narrative, poets resort/resorted to the use of several devices, which we have already covered in the previous seminars – those of imagery, metaphor, simile, metonymy, alliteration, rhythm, metre and rhyme. While the first five are used equally by prose-writers, the latter three are specific tools of poetry.
Another factor that differentiates between a narrative verse and a short story is the obvious one of length – that is, economy of language. Yet most early narrative verses were much longer than many short stories. However, later narrative verses, including the long ones, used economy of language, saying a great deal with few words, as compressed meditative poems do. The Medieval Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Piers Plowman told complex narratives in formal structures, with interlaced flashbacks, symbolic and allegoric sub-plots. Similarly, many modern short stories use flashbacks, symbolism and inter-textual references to expand the content of the narrative. According to C S Lewis, “allegory is a mode of expression [which] belongs to the form of poetry, more than to its content … [s]ymbolism is a mode of thought …” (Lewis, 1958, p. 48)(my underlining)
In Medieval times, the function of the narrative was divided – as entertainment, and as the vehicle for spiritual or physical lessons in life. This function underwent a change during the Renaissance, moving away from the heavily allegoric and epic towards the symbolic and metaphoric. Lessons were still there to be learnt but they were not the prime motivation for the poem. Narrative works became shorter and less frequent, as emotions and subjects involving the senses became more popular. Yet throughout this time myth and its creatures were still used as vehicles for idealistic standards.
In Coleridge’s narrative poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the mystic and symbolic abound. Events were governed by omens and curses. When the Mariner shot the Albatross, symbolic of good luck at sea, with his crossbow, he realised that he:
… had done a hellish thing,
And it would work ‘em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
(Norton, 1983, p. 569, lines. 91-4)
During his tribulations at sea, including the death of his companions, and his own near-death, spiritual beings both good and evil manifested to assist the Mariner to learn the lesson that:
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all. (ibid,
p. 581, lines 612-3,616-7)
Coleridge used patterns in his verse structure – the first and third lines were of iambic tetrameter, and the second and fourth lines rhymed – and most of the stanzas were quatrains, though there were a few six line stanzas. The rhythms these patterns set up enhance the narration, especially if read aloud, or performed.
Longfellow’s Chaucer evokes a picture of the poet sitting surrounded by artworks that illustrate his penchance for nature. The sonnet harks back to Chaucer’s own major work The Canterbury Tales – a narrative verse of epic proportions in which the characters tell tales to pass the time on their journey of pilgimage; tales involving characters of all classes, and including tales of talking animals and birds.
Read from The Canterbury Tales
This tale of Chanticleer the rooster, who through cunning escapes the clutches of a fox, is a retelling of an Aesop fable. Longfellow evinces from the reader of his poem all of this pre-existent narrative knowledge, by the lines:
. . . and as I read
I hear the crowing cock, I hear the note
Of lark and linnet, and from every page
Rise odors of plowed field or flowery mead.
(ibid. p. 680)
Thus a poem can be a vehicle for past narratives, achieved by a touching reference of a few words. If told in short story form, this character sketch would need expansion of these inter-textual references that can be alluded to in verse form. Longfellow wrote the one stanza sonnet using ten syllables lines that were a mixture of Iambic and anapestic trimeter, and an orderly rhyming pattern – ABBA ABBA CDECDE – that facilitates ease of reading.
By the closing of the nineteenth century, much poetry had moved away from the narrative. Walter de la Mare wrote poems about concepts, like Goodbye and Away, but also wrote a narrative verse called The Listeners which dealt with a Traveler’s experience at a “lone house” one moonlit night. It tells of “phantom listeners” who
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirred and shaken
By the lonely Traveler’s call. (ibid, p. 906)
It doesn’t just describe an eerie moment though. With the lines:
“Tell them I came, and no one answered,
That I kept my word,” he said. (ibid, p. 906)
the narrative expands, teasing the reader with the hint that there is more to the Traveler’s visit to the house than mere chance. It is left to the reader to fill the gaps. This is where poetry has the edge on prose – it can tell parts of a narrative, leave whole swathes of information out, yet leave the reader with the knowledge that a tale has been told, and one that fits a bigger picture. Short story can do this too, although it is rarely done with the same degree of brevity. According to Dylan Thomas, in his essay , ‘Walter de la Mare as a Prose Writer’, he describes de la Mare’s “elaborate language, [as] fuller than ever of artifice and allusion when it was seemingly simple”. (Thomas, 1983, pp. 110-111) He believed de la Mare’s
[c]ountry terror was a little cosy, so that you felt not that
something nasty had happened in the woodshed but that
there were quite hellish goings-on among the wool-baskets
in the parlour. (ibid, p. 110)
Of the same era as de la Mare, D H Lawrence wrote poems about objects like Piano, and concepts like Elemental and Self-Protection. With his poem Snake he wrote of nature as seen and experienced from a cultural position. The narrative describes the coming of the snake to the poet’s water-trough, giving a physical description of the snake and its actions, followed by his reaction based on fear of snakes bred into him. As a result of this fear, he killed the snake.
And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed
human education. (Norton, 1983, p. 953)
With a touch of intertextuality Lawrence refers to the albatross of Coleridge’s poem, and the connotations that accompany it.
And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
(ibid, p. 954)
Of significance in these two poems is a breaking away from the formal structure of verse. Walter de la Mare’s poem was of mixed metrical patterns, with alternate lines rhyming, and no stanzas. D H Lawrence abandoned all formal patterns of line-length, stanza-length, and rhyme-grouping. There were no rhymes, and the line lengths were often those of sentences. In other words he wrote free verse. The line between prose and poetry, for those who need their literature to be placed in neat little boxes clearly defined and labeled, was beginning to blur.
Of the twentieth century, Dylan Thomas specialised in the sounds of words and their interplay to form vivid and unusual images. Of mixed metre in six line stanzas, with intermittent rhyming, his poem The Hunchback in the Park (Norton, 1983, pp 1178 – 1179) tells a sad social tale of a homeless man forced to sleep in a “dog kennel”. Much of the narrative is implied yet evocative by his turn of phrase – for example “the Sunday somber bell at dark” that tells of the bell rung to inform visitors that the park is closing implies the tolling of the church bell, carrying with it notions of religion, of Christian attitudes which should encompass the sheltering of all God’s creations, including the aged and poor. The narrative is also that of the park, Cwmdonkin Park in the industrial Welsh town in which Thomas grew up.
Read from The Hunchback in the Park
A favourite of mine, Richard Wilbur’s Boy at the Window tells of two points of view, two perspectives on life and what constitutes security and safety. Yet it tells a tale – of a boy snug inside a warm house watching a snowman outside in a storm, and of the snowman watching the boy staring out of:
. . . the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear.
(ibid, p. 1222)
Told with a degree of formality in two brief eight-line stanzas, iambic pentameter, an ABBA BCBC pattern of rhyming, and an economy of words, Wilbur’s narrative is nevertheless crammed with details. His referral to Adam and Paradise shows a leaning towards the earlier poetry, where religion and myth were used as signposts to further meaning, and to strict standards. Yet the narrative is modern in its use of perspectives and the emotions, the senses it arouses.
Both of Adrienne Rich’s poems, Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers and Living in Sin tell stories – the former ballad in a structured way with rhyming couplets in four line stanzas of regular iambic pentameter stresses; the latter unstructured, with no rhymes, irregular metric lines and no stanzas. In Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers her life is revealed not just by her tapestry, but also by:
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band [that]
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand. (ibid, p. 1309)
We learn by those two lines that her life has been controlled by her husband, has been restricted. As she depicts the tigers, free “and unafraid” upon the screen, the reader shares a knowledge of the sense of her longing for freedom.
Living in Sin tells a tale of adultery, of an illicit affair with the milkman. Rich used words like heresy, sepulchral, and demons to remind the reader of the religious immorality of the protagonist’s way of life. With words like “beetles”, “dust”, “cigarettes” and “the coffee-pot boil[ing] over on the stove”, the notion of the sordid nature of the affair is underlined. The final commentary leaves the reader in no doubt.
[S]he woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs. (ibid, p. 1309)
The futility, and the inevitability of the continuation of the affair is driven home.
In these postmodern days, verse has seen a return to its original narrative function although in a much less formal form – free verse, with its lack of structured metre, stanzas, and rhyme. In The Monkey’s Mask, by Dorothy Porter, a modern fictional genre, that of murder mystery with a lesbian detective, is presented in verse form.
Read from The Monkey’s Mask
(C) Jud House 17/02/2013
Abrams, M H (1993) A Glossary of Literary Terms 6th Edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.
Allison, Barrows, Blake, Carr, Eastman, & English Jnr; + Stallworthy (essay) (1983) The Norton Anthology of Poetry 3rd Edition. New York: W W Norton & Company. (REFERRED TO AS NORTON)
Lewis, C S (1936;1958) The Allegory of Love – A Study of Medieval Tradition. New York: A Galaxy Book, Oxford University Press 1958.
Thomas, D (1983) Quite Early One Morning – Poems, Stories, Essays. London: J M Dent & Sons Ltd.
Alexander, M (Trans. 1973) Beowulf. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, Penguin Books Ltd.
Chaucer, G The Canterbury Tales Trans. Coghill, Nevill (1970) Middlesex: Penguin Classics, Penguin Books Ltd.
Langland, W (1377) Piers the Plowman. Edited by Skeat, Rev W W (1869) Edition: (1958) Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Porter, D (1997) The Monkey’s Mask. South Melbourne: Hyland House Publishing Pty Ltd.
Tolkien, J R R (1995) Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. London: Harper Collins Publishers.
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