The beautiful structures of poetry are well-lit paths of guidance, companions of artistic freedom, overwhelming, precise, and necessary. Their naming of a musicality or formula for certain kinds of strophic measures were for me, grossly under-developed. I harbored a phobia of explaining iambic pentameter, and understanding the syllabic differences of English and French. Why delve into something that makes me so uncomfortable? Because without these terms, devices, and forms, the creativity stagnates into unchecked chaos. Anything could be a poem, and that is a very scary thought for those readers and writers who know that “Le lac” by Alphonse de Lamartine or “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats doesn’t just happen with enthusiastic desire. It takes grueling practice and knowledge of wise poets who came before. Aristotle talks about the imitation that men and women seek when it comes to making art in “Poetics.” How can you imitate what you can’t articulate? Or better yet, how can you do it well?
As many English majors know, it’s very possible and sometimes rewarding to draw on varying thoughts to stall for time on what one doesn’t quite understand. Some undergraduate professors could be fooled by one listening to the stories of the students who did read all of Moby Dick, and using random theories and side-tracked parallels to complete class participation. Dastardly, but true. However, the deeper you go into the field, the more absolutely vital it becomes to really grasp what Herman Melville meant by his Captain Ahab character or why he chose subjective dialects and scene breaks in the novel. The deeper you wade into statistics, be prepared to showcase formulas and measurements. When attempting the work of a stellar seamstress, not understanding a cross-stitch pattern or how to replace a zipper won’t do. In reviewing the details of how French verse is constructed and maintained, I’ve found that exploring these poetic laws is like the richness of the Lord’s prayer: there is the acknowledgement of previous error, studying the best example, and stepping out in faith to succeed and fail again.
One great piece to read as an undergraduate French student is “Le Lac” by Alphonse Lamartine. At sixteen strophes, or verses, it’s not too intimidating and the language is elegant, incredibly rhythmic, and fueled by unforgettable devices. The waves of the central character, The Lake, “drive”, “spin” and “cavort.” The waters plunge time away from the narrator, and from his one true love that he is fearful of forgetting forever. The central stanzas illustrate the narrator speaking directly to The Lake, as if he’s an enemy. Enough admiring blabber, see for yourself this translation found online, by A.Z. Foreman (and if that’s not the original author, and you are, forgive me, there aren’t many English translations to choose from):
Thus driven forth forever to new shores,
Born toward Eternal Night and never away,
Sailing the Sea of Ages, can we not
Drop anchor for one day?
O Lake! The year has scarcely spun its course.
Now, by the waves she should have seen again,
Watch how I sit, alone, upon this stone
On which you saw her then.
You lowed as now below those plunging cliffs.
As now, you broke about their riven flanks.
As now, the wind flung your foam forth to wash
Her feet which graced your banks.
One evening we two roamed -recall?- in silence:
On waves and under heaven, far and wide,
No sound came save the cadence of the oarsmen
Stroking your tuneful tide.
Then sudden tones, unfathomed on this earth,
Resounded round the echoing, spellbound shore.
The tide turned heedful; and I heard these words
From the voice I adore:
Suspend your trek O Time! Suspend your flight
O favoring hours, and stay!
Let us pause, savoring the quick delight
That fills the dearest day.
Unhappy crowds cry out to you in prayers.
Flow, Time, and set them free.
Run through their days and through their ravening cares!
But leave the happy be.
In vain I ask for hours to linger on
And Time slips into flight.
I tell this night: “Be slower!” and the dawn
Undoes the raveled night.
Let’s love, then! Love, and feel while feel we can
The moment on its run.
There is no shore of Time, no port of Man.
It flows, and we go on.
Covetous Time! Our mighty drunken moments
When love pours forth huge floods of happiness;
Can it be true that they depart no faster
Than days of wretchedness?
Why can’t we keep some trace of them, at least?
Why lost forever? Why beyond recall?
Will Time that gave them, Time that now destroys them
Not bring them back at all?
Eternity, naught, past, dark gulfs: what do
You do with days of ours which you devour?
Speak! Will you not bring back those things sublime?
Return the raptured hour?
O Lake! Caves! Speechless ledges! Gloaming glades!
You whom Time shields or can bring back to light,
Beautiful Nature, keep the memory-
The memory of that night:
Memory in your stillness and your storms,
Fair Lake, in your cavorting sloping sides,
In the black firtrees, in the savage rocks
Rising above your tides;
Memory in the breathings of the zephyr,
In shore whose sounds resound to shore each night,
And in the silver visage of the star
Touching you with soft light.
Let the bewailing winds and sighing reeds,
Let the light balm you blow through cliff and grove,
Let all that man can hear, behold or breathe
All say: “They were in love.”
You can collect the varied emotions in this poem like wildflowers. The narrator is sorrowful, hopeful, passionate, and tragically depressed. It’s such a quintessential French poem because the psychological depth bleeds through the pretty words. Such complete art from a perfectly human artist.
Now when we turn to the Lord’s prayer, dedicated by the Lord Himself, Christ; we see perfection in the divine. He knew the brutal hearts of the ones listening to his sermons, or he wouldn’t have taken the time to explain how prayer should be done. In the very first line hearers are reminded. “Our Father who art in heaven” and not “God, please do this!” or “God you know how amazing I am…” The context of this very first phrase is, this Deity sits from the throne in heaven and controls everything. I can be nothing but humbled. It sets the tone for a servant’s mindset. As the prayer continues, humility is interlaced with joyful acceptance of travails and hope for sustenance and holiness. Christ knew we would need to refer to this often, and is patient with our repetitive misapplication and denial. But he also awaits our grasping of this very beautiful, fully explored truth. It’s there for readers to constantly wrestle with and grow in understanding of:
“Our Father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be Thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven
And give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our trespasses
As we forgive those who trespass against us
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom,
The power, and the glory,
Forever and ever.
These poetic treasures are a legacy left by the people who valiantly created them. It was brave of them to take what they had an expansive knowledge of (poetry in Lamartine’s case, life in Jesus’ case), and build upon their natural propensities. I’ve learned to take the discovery of literary knowledge in stride, knowing I won’t be where I want for a long time and that’s perfectly fine. Learning well means patience and determination, the soil of humanity’s garden. The daily bread is out there, and I can look to heaven to find it.