For Better For Verse:

Link to U.Va. English Department

Two Test Drives

Here come two couplet epigrams. Each is a joke that hinges on something that verse shares with humor – repetition – and each depends for its punch on the set-up that is furnished by a title just about as long as the poem itself. First, Robert Browning’s genial Victorian mischief in a “Rhyme for a Child Viewing a Naked Venus in a Painting of ‘The Judgement of Paris’”:

He gazed and gazed and gazed and gazed,

Amazed, amazed, amazed, amazed.

Only three words make up the whole poem, stuck as it is on the goggle-eyed boy who is transfixed to behold what 19th-century society kept ostentatiously hidden. Browning’s obsessive verbal repetition performs a prosodic slapstick routine: the clownish exaggeration of helpless stupefaction. The boy’s outward absorption and inward wonder explain each other with a completeness whose formal sign is an incessant rhyme that recurs, in just two lines, not once but seven times. And each time it carries the extra burden of a rhythmic stress that strictly corresponds to the mesmerized automatism of the iambic tetrameter:

            u    /      u    /      u    /      u    /

            He gazed | and gazed | and gazed | and gazed,

            u   /    u   /    u   /    u   /

            Amazed,| amazed,| amazed,| amazed.

This bemused poem about an intense shock to a tender mind leaves room for only one kind of change, which is the thrilling, or drilling, intensification of repetition itself. The refusal of Browning’s epigram to change plays a little joke on us. It elaborately disappoints our expectation that poetry should so arrange its recurrences as to make a difference.

Turn now to a poem of exactly the same size and form that puts change pointedly on the agenda. Alexander Pope wrote it early in the 18th century and called it an “Epigram Engraved on the Collar of a Dog Which I Gave to His Royal Highness” – a prince who entertained courtiers at his palace in the London suburb of Kew:

I am his Highness’ dog at Kew;

Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?

Line 2 springs an ambush that is all the more effective for the polite reader’s having been lulled by line 1 into an attitude of relaxed condescension. Even line 2 trots out like a star pupil in obedience school:

            u  /    u    /   u     /     u  /

            I am | his High|ness’ dog | at Kew;

             u     /     u    /      u    /     u   /

            Pray tell | me, sir, | whose dog | are you?

So regular is the gentle iambic rhythm that Pope’s ventriloquizing feint has insulted the reader by calling him a son of a bitch before he knows what’s hit him. This is one of those poems – or jokes – that elicits a double take. The real finesse of its taunt comes out when we return to the scene of the crime, halfway through line 2, dust off the magnifying glass, and replay it in an altered, sharper scansion. Try it this way:

            u     /     u    /      /    u     u   /

            Pray tell | me, sir, | whose dog | are you?

The slight change this scansion introduces after the comma-marked caesura — transposing the next slack and stress by a trochaic substitution in the 3rd foot– puts the bite on the reader in a subtly new way. Stressing “whose” rather than the metrically anticipated “dog” expands the impertinence of Pope’s jest immensely. Since we are both here in service at court, Sir, says the cute doggie, and since each of us, Sir, wags his well-fed tail in the king’s livery one way or another, then it goes without saying, Sir, that we’re both dogs; and the question then becomes, Sir, just who is it you do your tricks for, anyhow? The simplest of shifts in stress registers a tonal change as pungent as the angling of an eyebrow in a closeup. “What mighty contests rise from trivial things,” Pope marveled at the start of his most famous poem The Rape of the Lock. We could do worse than embrace that principle as our motto here in 4B4V.

These two gems, with a few others not much bigger, are found among the Warming Up cluster in our List of Poems. You might open these in the Poem workbox as first fingering exercises with which to practice the scansion and feedback tools you will then use in attempting other poems in that cluster. Two other clusters, Moving Along and Special Challenge, will offer more interest as you reach the point where an increase in difficulty does indeed feel interesting rather than intimidating. Our clusters do no more than indicate general levels of challenge. You’re free at any point to try any poem in 4B4V you like. So if you prefer working sequentially on poems of similar kind – sonnets, say, or ballads – or alternatively by the same poet, you’ll find the titles sorted according to Type and Poet in the List of Poems.  Return to a given poem as often as you please. But remember: once you’ve put a new poem in the workbox, your former scansion whether partial or complete is erased, and in order to see it again (unless you’ve saved it as a screen shot on your computer) you’ll have to reconstruct it from scratch.