Ben Jonson’s Metrics

[ “Or have tasted the bag ‘o the bee?”]

Allen Ginsberg’s Basic Poetics class from 1980 continues from here. Allen, at this time, and throughout his Naropa teaching time, was interested in instilling a basic regard for the rudiments of poetry – metrical analysis – quantitative meter (see, for example, here, here and here) – Such matters lose somewhat in simple unalloyed transcription (it is for this reason that an accompanying audio is provided – see here) – Also, Allen makes much use of the blackboard on this occasion (something, again, obviously, unreproducible in the following notes). So, today’s transcript (Allen on Ben Jonson’s metrics) may, perhaps, be a slightly laborious read, but not without valuable instruction and real  careful attention  

AG:  …and before we’re done with these three terms [of Ezra Pound’s –phanopoeia, logopoeia, and melopoeia] – and this is the middle of the second, we should be able, in spite of our lack of education,  to actually understand how to analyze, or figure out,  or have some reconstruction, paradigm, understanding, of how these things go.

I’m seeing this [Ben Jonson’s ‘The Triumph of Claris”]  as basically anapests, though it’s tremendously varied, and I don’t even know whether  his measurement was by accent, but I’ll analyze by accent for the moment  – using this for short  and this for long,  ok? [places on the blackboard basic stress marks} – that alright? – those two marks? – or short and strong accents, light and strong.  So – “Have you seen..” (Well, it depends how you want to say it, but reducing it to what would probably be simplest – “All the gain, all the good of the elements’ strife”) –  [Allen marks on blackboard –  “All the gain/ all the good/ of the el-ements’/ strife” – all the good, all the gain, of the elements’  strife – probably – however, there is that  “All the gain/ all the good/ of the elements’ strife”.  So you could get a little bit of  “All the gain/ all the good/ of the elements’ –  strife” (I’m just using that as my own home-made half stress. If you were to do this) – apparently – “All the good, all the gain” -“All the good/ all the gain”…

“Have you seen but a bright lily grow?” – “Have you seen/ but a bright/ lily grow?” – “Have-you-seen, but-a-bright, li-ly-grow” (You can’t do anything with that “lily” except make it.. Now,  theoretically, here’s a case where..  probably the real, the basic, the skeletal meter is “”Have you seen/ but a bright/ lily grow?”,  but, actually, in actual pronunciation, you’ve really got to make it  “Have you seen but a bright lily grow?” – “Have you seen but a bright lily-grow?”  (with “lily” there, ok?). So what that would be is it’s a mixed meter, or it’s a  variant, on the page, of the basic meter. Then – “Have you seen but a bright lily-grow, Before rude hands have touch’d it?”. That’s interesting – “”Have you seen but a bright lily-grow before  \ rude hands have touch’d it?”- da- da –  before – You could actually say [Allen continues inscribing on the board] – “before-rude-hands-have-touched-it” – So it’s ” – before – rude – hands – have touched it” – Funny – “before-rude” – it would be like the alternative ” before/rude hands/.have touched/it” – “before rude hands have touched it” – It’s basically an iambic line, I would guess, but it isn’t really “before rude hands have touch’d it”. So it’s like…  the anapest is like this and the iamb is like that  (Allen draws on blackboard) and they’re basically the same structure – da-da-dam, or de-dam – a little upwards, right? – Everybody following this? – The lilt goes upward, the stress goes upward. It’s fascinating how much breath you expel from your breast, from your stomach, to make the emphasis,  It’s the amount of breath, actually, literally speaking, physiologically, (stress means the amount of breath). It takes more breath to make a stress than to make a light accent. So, physiologically, considering that, you’ve got.. (that) you’re putting more spiritus, more breath, more spirit-breath, into the heavy accent than into the light accent. If you want to know the density of breath in these… It all comes back to density of breath that the bellows is pumping out. So, if it’s heavier, the more explosive, the more explosion of breath on the end of the foot  (which is it? –  foot? – foot.. that’s the (Allen indicates by, literally, stamping his feet), – that’s the foot! – on the floor – so, ba-bom – so you have the foot on the floor and that’s the stress, and time. So, there’s more stress there. “Have you seen..” – da-da-da .  Okay, so, what we’ve got here ? – it’s the same thing, except shortened – only one line – If you want to take that before “Before rude hands have touch’d it” – but these are the same, more or less – “Before -rude – hands – have touch’d it” – or “Before.rude hands/have touched it”, except..you know..that’s clear, right?  –I’ll leave it at that – [Allen continues writing on the blackboard) – Iambs mostly, and Anapests – Okay? – And for those who don’t know what those are …? – Is that all clear? Is there anybody who’s left behind in kindergarten?  –  “(M)arked..” okay.. 

“Ha’ you marked but the fall o’ the snow” – And it’s really got there.. it’s got into regularity now – “Ha’ you marked/ but the fall/ o’ the snow”  – “the fall/o’the snow” – “Be-fore/ the soil /hath smuch’d it” – That gets into regular.  These two are roughly.. iambic – “Before the soil hath smuch’d it” – Is that right? – Yeah – ” “Before the soil hath smuch’d it”  – Ba-bum ba-bum ba-ba-ba –  So,  Ba-bap bom-ba-ba, bom-ba-ba-ba- bom-ba – Ba bappa-bom-ba, Bom-ba bom-ba…  – roughly equivalent. But if that thing there [points to blackboard ] and that thing there, the extra heavy syllable that gives the thing its delicacy, you know, and variation (otherwise it’d be… the ending of the sentence would be,  automatic). … But what’s also weird and beautiful about this – it’s varying a long-ish line anapest, then followed by a similar-structure.. one, two…  – followed by a similar-structure iambic . Similar structure – you understand why similar? Anybody not? Anybody…. Is this..  Okay.,

Student: I’d like to ask a question, which is…

AG: By similar I mean this is two short and a long, this is only one short and a long, but the foot ends in that, it ends in a stress (rather than, “Tyger “, it isn’t like that , bom-bom, “Tyger, tiger, burning bright”, it’s the opposite, it’s bom-ba – “Gert-ty”!)  – In other words, they’re… this is a longer foot, a three-syllable foot, and this is a two-syllable foot . The iambic is two-syllable, the anapest is three-syllable but they all come down hard in the end on the third syllable (or on the latter half, or latter part of it) – Okay?  In that sense, they’re similar . However, they’re different because one’s three- and one’s two-syllable meters (and it’s not very often that they mix them – see, it’s not very often that you’ll find something good enough and easy enough with the language to be mixing the anapest and iamb – or  reversing it with the dactylic)., because it makes the…. [ Allen returns to his chalk and blackboard again, marks up a metrical line ] – Does anybody know a line that would go like that ? –   –  “Given the money I gave you newly” – “Given the/money/I gave you/newly” –  “Given the money I gave you newly”

Student: “Mother and mayden..”

AG: “Mother and maiden there, there never none…”  maybe? – “Father/ of mine/there never was…”  That would be..  – [Allen reverts to his original example] – Why not just  “Given the money..” – “Given/ the money/ I gave you..  newly” –  “Given-the-money-I-gave-you-newly – “Given the money/I gave you newly” – “Don’t tell me honey”, “Love me truly” – Given/ the money/ I gave you newly./Don’t tell me honey/Love me truly”? – (that would be some funny lyrics, and unusual – usually da-da-da, da-da-da give me the money, da-da-da, da-da-da, I gave to you the money, da-da-da dee-da-da, you owe me the money, da-da-da-dee-da -da) back (that would just run on and on, you see) .

So, anyway, lets go on with this  – “Before the soil hath smuch’d it?/ Ha’ you felt the wool o’ the beaver?” – What do we get with that ? [Allen chalks it on the blackboard} – “Have you felt/the wool of/the beaver?” – So he mixes it now – “Have you felt/ the wool/ of the beaver? – So he’s got the two forms mixed now, do you see? – Everybody follow that? It’s one anapestic foot, one iambic foot, one anapest with this little tail – “”Have you felt..” – So it’s like a Bach fugue, or something, (that is to say, it’s built like a brick shit-house, that is to say, every single line is different , you notice – bappa-bom bappa-bom bappa-bom bappa-bom,  bappa-bom, bappa-bom. bom-bom  bom-bom, bom-bom-bom-bom, bom   bom-ba,  bappa bom  bappa-bom  bom-bom,  ba-bom, ba-bom, ba-bom   bappa-bom ba-bom  boppa-bom-ba – That’s what gave that uncanny effect that you heard when I was reading it straight, listening to the meters)

“All the gain all the good of the elements’ strife/Have you seen but a bright lily grow,/Before rude hands have touch’d it/Ha’ you mark’d but the fall o’ the snow/Before the soil hath smutch’d it/Ha’ you felt the wool o’ the beaver/ –  Or swan’s down ever?”  (That really gets it – “Or swan’s/ down/ ever”  – dig when that goes by, in terms of its real accents)  –  “Or swan’s down ever” –  (actually, probably it’s  “Or swan’s down/ev-er” [continuing marking on the blackboard] – da-da-da, da-da – ideologically, abstracted ideologically, would be just that, but it’s actually  “Or swan’s down ever” (that’s actually funny,  that’s so good that – “Or swan’s down ever”)

And then he gets into regularity again – “Or have smelt/ o’ the bud/ o’ the briar? – He’s gone back to that to be regular – “Or have smelt o’ the bud o’ the briar” – And he’s emphasizing – “o the bud o’ the briar” (because he’s got the “o”‘s – smell of the bud of the briar – o – of) –  So you can really get into the smell of the bud of the briar – Speeding it, speeding it up, dig, So you had “Or smelt of the bud of the briar” – it’s not quite like “O..smelt o’ the bud o’ the briar” – that’s really vernacular – “Did you smell o’ the bud o’ the briar?” – you get it right off your lips that one, you don’t have to move your lips sounding  “Or smelt of the bud of the briar”, you don’t use your tongue too much, just sticking it back and forth staccato-like.

So, his ear’s so good that he made a kind of  staccato shot out of that one. And it’s balanced like a weight, you know, a metaphysical weight, this verse – “..smelt o’ the bud o’ the briar?/Or the nard in the fire?” – And – then he continues, but, instead, he tricks you, because, instead of..  usually those short lines are iambic, remember,  (or) tend to be iambic, but now he’s switched it, and the last short line – what was it? – “Or the nard in the fire?” – or “Or the/nard/in the/fire?”  [Allen spells it out ]- so that goes on, continuing the anapest  – “Or the nard in the fire?” – Instead of saying  “or nard in fire” (he could have said  “or nard in fire”, like, he could have said “or smelt”.. “or (has) smelt (of) the bud in the briar, or the nard in the fire”). He (wanted to.. see, he gets it so clear) – “..smelt o’ the bud o’ the briar?/Or the nard in the fire.”

“Or have tasted the bag of the bee?” – “Or have taste/-ed the bag of/ the bee?”  [Again, he spells it out]- So that’s pretty… Oh yeah, here he ends.. every other times (most other times) he ended on a light syllable, except here,  except  “Ha’ you mark’d but the fall o’ the snow” –  “Or have tasted the bag of the bee” – I think I told you “Ha’ you mark’d but the fall o’ the snow” – “Ha’ you mark-ed .. the fall o’/ the snow” – “Have (you) taste/-ed the bag of/ the bee? – So, this one here – “bee”, and this one [sic – noting it on the board] – “snow” –  are  definitely the same (metrically), are perfectly symmetrical and exactly the same meter – “Ha’ you mark’d ..the fall o’ the snow” or “have tasted the bag of the bee”  – “Have you mark’d but the fall of the snow, or have tasted the bag of the bee” – “bag of the bee” (that’s pretty, when you think of “the bag of a bee” –  I have tasted the  “bag of the bee”  (I had my bee pollen today). So,  “bag of a bee”  is  something that’s real also , in addition to being exquisitely Shakespearean-ly Ariel-esque ( “tasted the bag of the bee” – that’s pretty)

Then, to make it..  cap it all off… finish it – “Oh so white!..”  And, you’ve got to figure what that is – Well, “Oh-so-white!… Oh so soft!  …what’s the next one?  –  white.. comma!,  (you’ve got to stop with that) –  “Oh so white!, Oh so soft!.. Oh so sweet is she” – “Oh-so-sweet” (is she). But, so you think, bappa-bom, bappa-bom, bappa-bom ba-da  –  not only has he made the…balanced it like that, so that you must make the breath – “Oh so white!, Oh so soft!, Oh so sweet is she” – Oh so white!, Oh so soft!, Oh so sweet is she” – Also, it isn’t like that (be)cause, as we began there, remember – “All the gain, all the good…”,  “Oh” is an expletive , which means you expleted  the loss of air, so it couldn’t possibly be a light syllable  (unless you’re saying “oh-so white” – “Oh-so-white, oh-so soft, oh-so sweet is she”). – So, therefore, it’s really like that [ sic – points again to blackboard ] So you’ve really got a sharp, sharpie there, you’ve got a sharp stress on the “Oh”‘s

Student: Why does it have to be like that?

AG: Why does the “Oh” have to be sharp, in the accent?  Is that the question?

Student: Yes.

AG: Because “Oh” when you pronounce it physically is heavier! – is heavier, is what they call an expletive, you know. In other words – “Oh?”  (If you’re not going to say “Oh?”, why say “Oh”?) – Just by its very nature, “Oh” has a built-in stress, Unless you insist on saying “oh-so white, oh-so soft…”, but then it’s a bookish “Oh”, it’s not a spoken “Oh” if you say ” “oh-so white, oh-so soft, oh-so sweet”, you see. It;s really… “Oh” is spoken “Oh” – “Oh so white!” – and the more that you… It, actually, sounds better, you know, rhythmically, when you get that push backward -” Oh so..”  – or – “Have you felt o’ the wool of the beaver…”  “swan down ever”  – See, it”s funny against the  “Of the beaver” -(” ‘o the beaver”) – it’s not the “oh” expletive, wool of the beaver”,  is  (“‘o”)  “of” – so that’s a minor accent, it isn’t a heavy accent – “o’ the beaver” – “wool o’ the beaver”, it just means “of” and so it’s not a stressed accent . You know, in the line..  three lines, four lines  , one, two, three, four  – six lines up –  “Have you felt o’ the wool o’ the beaver?” – there’s another “o”, but it’s not a heavy “oh”,  it’s just  a light stressed “o” . Is that clear?

Student; Yes

AG: So, one has “‘smelt o’ the bud o’ the briar” or the nard in the fire, or has tasted the bag o’ the bee?” -“Oh so white!, Oh so soft!.. Oh so sweet” – That, depending how much “o” you want to put into it, how much air you want to put into, the “Oh”, you have all different ways of interpreting – If you’re an actor, if this is a play, or if you’re a singer, if this is a song, or even a poet. if you’re just talking, there are different ways of balancing and interpreting the weight in those lines and different humors can be applied in pronouncing it and you can make all sorts of beautiful variations with “Or have tasted the bag o’the bee”  -“Oh so white!, Oh so soft!.. Oh so sweet is she”,  or “”Or have tasted the bag o’ the bee” -“Oh, so white!, Oh so, soft!,  Oh, so sweet is she” – I mean, however you want to act it out, however you want to pronounce it, he’s built a little machine of air there that you can play with, like a.. sort of… like a hang-glider, on your own hot air, on your own up-draft, hang on inspiration and exclamation.

[Audio for the above can be heard here, beginning at approximately twenty-one-and-a-half minutes in and concluding at approximately forty-one minutes in]

[This material first appeared on The Allen Ginsberg Project – here]

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