Spontaneous Poetics (continues) –

Sir Philip Sidney (1554-1586) via the National Portrait Gallery, London

AG: So, anyway, the reason I got off into quantity was.. [back to Sir Walter Ralegh’s “The Lie” – Allen sings, to harmonium accompaniment, the first two stanzas of the poem – “Go Soul, the body’s guest,/ Upon a thankless errand/ Fear not to touch the best;/ The truth shall be thy warrant..”] – I guess you could do it that way, easy enough.
It was something relevant to another conversation several days ago (about a poet) of this era, Sir Philip Sidney. Some students were asking if “first thought” is “best thought”, or what does “first thought, best thought” mean in terms of improvisation? Where do you look? And there is an old prescription from sonnets by Sidney about looking into your heart and writing. So I want to close this class (because I have to go upstairs and give a reading) by reading the first of the sonnets from “Astrophel and Stella” by Sir Philip Sidney, who is, what? around 1580, I guess, these would be…late 16th century. [ Allen reads a sonnet by Sir Philip Sidney “Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,/ That the dear she might take some pleasure of my pain..”..”Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite:/”Fool”, said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart, and write!””] – How many of you knew that? Know that and had heard that? How many had not? [a meager show of hands] – It’s astounding. It was high-school, grammar-school, stuff in 1890, or something, back in “the good old days” – “Fool” said the Muse, “look in your heart and write”, is one of the classic period pieces. It’s one of the pieces that everybody… I’m sorry, I’ve ignored you.

Student: Allen, when you were talking about Greek before…

AG: Yeah

Student: ..and how it all goes back to stretching the vowels..

AG: Stressing, no, hearing, the vowels..

Student: Hearing the vowels.

AG: Yeah, measuring the vowel, or developing some ear for it..

Student: When did all that go astray? In Latin? Is that when it first started to…

AG: Ah, let’s see..European writing was in Latin until..what? twelfth-century or so? (or, at least Italian letters, Italian writing, was all in Latin). In Italy, writing was in Latin until..when?.. Who was..

Student: Petrarch

AG: Petrarch began writing in Italian (vernacular) language. Petrarch. But in England, there was Anglo-Saxon style, which was accentual (the earlier British verse in Britain was Anglo-Saxon, which was counted by what was called then alliterative verse. And (Ezra) Pound has translated some of that in “The Seafarer” (which we have in the library in the book Personae). If you check out “The Seafarer”, you’ll see the Pound translation of that verse-form, alliterative, but (Geoffrey) Chaucer is the first that begins to write in…

Student: Something recognizable in English?

AG: Well, no, but stressed English..

Student: Stressed English? I  never heard..

AG: English stress. Does anybody know who first begins in writing in accents in English? That is, alliterative verse is accentual too, but at some point or other, let’s see, there would be writing in counting the stresses and using the Latin measurements, which would be about the point where people stopped using church Latin, or stopped using Latin for the official language and began using the native tongue, the demotic tongue, or the local tongue, and adapting the classical counting patterns to English stressed accents. Does anybody know when that begins, actually?

Student: It was a debate going on around Chaucer’s time, whether to write alliterative, or whether to..

AG: Whether to write in..?

Student:  Stressing or iambic modes.

AG: So what century was that?

Student: That was in Chaucer’s time.

AG: Twelfth-century?

Student: No, not twelfth-century.  Oral transmission, it was strictly oral..

AG: Hi, Tony. (TS is a late-arriving student)  Tony is a specialist in writing in America. [turns to TS] We were just talking about when in England did they stop writing in church Latin and in accentual meter? Did they actually write in British and in stress?

Student: Even Milton is still writing Latin

AG: Yeah, well, Milton is a great example of someone adapting the Latin syntax and also the vowel sounds to English.  Okay, I’m going to quit now [class session and tape end here]

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