the other side of the valley from our house ran an old railway.
It had been abandoned over sixty years before. My father frequently
walked along it to visit his mother, and sometimes he would take
me with him. At one high and lonely place at a moors beginning
the track passed through a shallow cutting; here, a spring broke
through the rocks; constant in summer or winter, its cave-cold
water would fall from a lip into a stone trough. And as it fell
this water had a voice. After discovering this place I would
visit it alone, a six year old who had said that he was going
to play with friends. I would sit by this spring, listening to
its voice. In that voice was the places history, one of
unbelievable antiquity ten of my lives, end to end, had
passed since the track had closed. Fretful in the wind, cold
and aloof at the frosty end of day, bright in the noon sunshine:
all human emotion was in the cadence of this falling stream,
wordless, but filled with the sense of place. A young child accepts
the idea of the universality of mind as a natural part of the
world. That this idea often wears away in later life is an adults
Poems worth calling poems are akin to that
waters voice. In language a physiology becomes exterior.
In poetry feeling is drawn outwards. In reading, an inner emotion
is recognized. In reading in different mood, in a different hour
of the day, another depth of emotion, a remembrance of the first
recollection, the harmony of the many recalls of the many readings.
The wordless resonance of person and a sense of place emerge
within the deepening journey.
The sonnet form used by Shakespeare is a
sonnet only in the loosest sense; it bears little relation to
the Petrarchan form. It is remarkably suited to the english language.
In its fourteen lines of iambic pentameter a train of thought
can be introduced, studied, reflected upon and, ultimately, resolved.
Within the most formal of structures the most fluid of thoughts
may be examined: it is analogous to water falling from stone
lip to stone receptacle.
Iambic pentameter: soft beat followed by
accentuated beat, ten in a line. Vowels steal time from consonants:
how much time is stolen depends on what forms stand next to each
other. Examples out of the air: Father, patter, weather, scatter,
vigour, summer. The poet must understand (deep within himself)
how this stealing of time works if his poetry is to be natural.
If he wishes to lay a stress away from the natural, illumining
the boundary between the natural and the artificial, he must
still understand the physiology of time as it takes place within
the mind. The early work of Dylan Thomas shows an extraordinarily
adept understanding of this repeated rhythm of altered time.
So poetry is like the simultaneous playing
and hearing of music. Feeling lies not simply in the perfection
of the form but in its sympathetic use.
There are many voices in a single voice;
of statement, of questioning, of answering, of resolving, of
meeting, of parting, of praying: and each voice is unique within
a dialect. In the speech of Somerset (where most of my youth
was spent) a statement often ends in an upturning pitch; the
stranger may assume a question where none is intended. Yet once
this is understood a natural musicality appears. All speech is
dialect; and the pitch and cadence of its stream should be understood,
heard naturally, spoken mutedly or with emphasis, as the day
calls. Emotions flatten or heighten speech, and not in ways which
are foregone. The measure of the poem is in the hearing of the
speaking: for the brief life of its lasting, the spoken form
becomes the unseen plenum of the world.
A break or a pause within a line signifies
a change of emphasis or direction of thought. This pause, or
caesura, is instrumental in giving a weight or a balance to the
line: it is a kind of fulcrum or pivot. Formal verse of the eighteenth
century often possesses a central and unvarying caesuraa
page of such verse if read aloud tends to sound dull and pendulomic
to our ears. Some modern formal poetry uses the caesura as a
stop of such emphasis that it overshadows both line-ending and
end rime. Here, a caesura becomes less of a pivot and more a
node or nexus, simultaneously gathering the meaning of the phrase
which precedes it, and allowing the meaning of the phrase which
One in a multitude
One day, lost, indistinguishable now
amongst the host and multitude of days;
the stripes of yellow light upon the brow
behind the dark heads of the pines amaze,
define, strike dumb with sense; and so it treads
in wonderment, the moving silence seen
in distance, while, within oneself, threads
of heavy pasts work loose: what might have been
is at its brink. This day draws out; the rush
of life assumes a skyline surge, then goes
towards the certainty unvoiced. The flush
of colour sinks to grey the quick stress slows
the sky is pleated in a clouded sense
of time rapidity to haste and rain
is rolling in at nightfall. Soon the tense
reverts, disparages the dusk, and, sane
----upon the spattered sash, a local
----directionless, which blows because
this poem is written as a sonnetextended by four lines
or one quatrainit could equally well have been written
as an irregular verse with each line ending at a present caesura.
Then the casual reader would not see that the poem contained
a sonnet within its frame. As it is, the poem stands within the
frame of an extended sonnet-form. Which is the additional quatrain?
It is impossible to tell. Which of the pauses in the lines is
the caesura? And this is important to the meaning: this poem
is a hesitant speculation upon the nature and location of consciousness.
A life is paraphrased both as a progressing day and as a progressing
poem; at some stage in its progression the insight comes that
progression itself is but one reading of the perspective that
seems to end in mute closure (but might extend to unknowable
distance): it is implied that, just as the poem is framed by
the form and yet contains the form, so consciousness lives within
a life and, at the same time, contains, upholds and, ultimately,
transcends that single life.
So the poem could be written
formally, as above; it could equally well have been written less
formally, the line endings governed by pauses rather than by
the convention of iambic pentameter. Were the poem spoken aloud,
I guess that its formality would not become apparent until the
approach of the end. Perhaps an underlying order does not have
to be perceived for the poem to be appreciated. In poetry, and
beyond, order enables the expression and enunciation of freedoms
without itself becoming perceptible. But, were it not there,
the freedom of meaning would not be conceivable. In the same
way the physiology which continually construes my personhood
seems to be so finely ordered that it is unknowable; but without
it I could not be.
The hardness or softness of
line-endings mould the individuality of a poem within its order,
and express emotion, or follow a train of reasoning. A line may
be fully end-stopped or may run on to the next line. The last
line of one sonnet may run on to the first line of the next.
Where many run-on lines follow one another the final line with
its inevitable end will fall like a hammer blow. End-stopping
can heighten feeling, and may be used to purposefully divorce
one line from the next:
My self is empty in its own defence.
My words in other ways frustrate their tense.
lines: three interior verses, each of four lines: the first lines
of these quatrains rime with the third; the second with the fourth.
At the end is a riming couplet. What is rime? Classically, it
is divided into masculine (on a beat) or feminine (ending on
a grace-note after a beat)
Unsensed, it makes, and yet is has no name;
No chain of words the way of its enduring
Nor adjective by which its being came:
Against its freedom, freedoms are immuring.
the first and third lines are masculine, the second and fourth
are feminine. Why these endings are given genders I do not know,
but it seems appropriate: the feminine rimes of enduring
and immuring moderate the end-stopping of the lines. The
alternation of masculine and feminine rimes give a sense of completeness.
English is relatively poor in words which
rime; a sequence of poems which utilised only perfect
end-rimes would have a limited vocabulary. Indeed, Shakespeares
sonnets contain many imperfect rimes; this master-poet,
unwilling to compromise his argument, was willing to compromise
the form, and indeed add resonance to his work by this compromise.
Some commentators, wishing for formal perfection in Shakespeare,
have re-written the history of english pronunciation to this
end. It is never wise to pour history into the mould of opinion.
[A parallel example: on the strength of a couplet where Hooper
is rimed with Cowper, that poets name in literary circles
is pronounced Coo-per. However, in the town of Olney, Buckinghamshire,
where he spent much of his life, his name is invariably pronounced
Cow-per. I would put money on the Olneian pronunciation being
the correct one.] Imperfect end-rimes can give an
elliptic quality to the poem. Wystan Auden used this quality
with great intelligence.
Internal rime, when purposed within the integrity
of the poem, has an extraordinary effect, balancing or counterbalancing
end-rime, flow, and caesura. Many poems which show a great integrity
posses an inner counter-rime: that is, the sounds of the words
which fall at the caesura carry an antiphonal pattern. If counter-rime
is coupled with variation of caesura and an observance of end-rime,
the result can be purposefully insecure and hesitant. Some of
Philip Larkins poems show this strikingly. The effect is
that of a half-muffled counter-argument which rises and shadows
the surface structure.
The sonnet is a capable form for the elucidation
of feelings within oneself or about another person. The three
quatrains allow for the introduction of the argument and a progressive
and subtle examination of claims and counter-claims about its
subject. The final couplet can sum up a resolution directly or
allow the poet to stand aside from his own words, remaining on
the side-lines, finally observant, uncommitted: the poem stands
unresolved, the metre itself dismissed:
Led thought, the spurious analogy,
Daylights end and tower of tautology.
poet has done with empty thinking; he has led himself on, and
now leaves the poem to go elsewhere. Form collapses in the last
And yet every good poem, every poem that
one might call a sonnet, is in some way irregular, turning the
phrase of the rule. In the poem which followsShakespeares
second sonnet (of which there are two variants in existence)the
iambic pattern almost unnoticeably falters in the twelfth line,
just before the couplet. The poet is telling the young man to
father a son to bring his beauty forward beyond his own time.
His arguments are meant to persuade: but, as they reach their
final conclusion, they do not ring true.  The
poet is well aware that the young mans son will not be
the young mans image, but a person in his own right, making
what he can of the unknown time, speculated upon in the poem,
when the poet will be mute in death and the poets friend
in that misery of age which the poet had foretold. And it is
here that the pattern of the poem stumbles. The couplet which
follows is less the emphatic summing up that it first appears
and more an oblique consideration of the effect of time on every
generation: and this is one of the dark catalysts of history.
Listen to a poem read aloud. In your hearing,
hear. Leave aside the consideration of meaning. What will you
hear? Well, that depends on the quality of the poem. A good poem
will have a musical integrity to it. The finest will have a quality
comparable to a chamber-work by a wonderful composer, which,
every voice heard, yet in its phrasing contains the world. Emotion,
feeling, explanation, question, answer, resolution all
these will come out, vital and unmuffled. No technicalities will
come to mind, not even the fact of rime. We are in the realm
of a great mystery here. What we are hearing is music. We are
in the presence of the working of a mind made manifest. And,
as yet, we have not ventured into the meaning of the words of
the first reading of the poem. Nor yet into the world of time:
how this brief but vast period of timelessness will resound in
all our readings throughout our lives.
When forty winters shall beseige
And dig deep trenches in thy beautys field,
Thy youths proud livery, so gazed on now,
Will be a tattered weed of small worth held.
Then being asked where all thy beauty lies,
Where all the treasure of thy lusty days,
To say within thine own deep-sunken eyes
Were an all-eating shame and thriftless praise.
How much more praise deserved thy beautys use
If thou couldst answer this fair child of mine
Shall sum my count and make my old excuse,
Proving his beauty by succession thine.
----This were to be new made when thou art
----And see thy blood warm when thou feelst
 Joel Fineman, Shakespeare's
Perjured Eye, 1986, University of California Press