Thursday, September 24, 2009

Banjo Patterson and Meter

As I experiment with writing a new group of aliens, and at the same time while I prepare a long post on voice (which is as yet not ready to go), I've been thinking quite a bit about meter. I did a post about it here some time ago, here, which lists different types of metrical feet (units), etc.

English has a natural rhythm to its patterns of stressed and non-stressed syllables. That rhythm is generally iambic, or composed of sets of syllables of the following pattern:

x X = one iambic foot

Where a small x is unstressed, and a large one is stressed.

A lot of people, hearing the word "iambic" probably think of Shakespeare and panic. True, Shakespeare did the whole iambic thing beautifully:

"Shall I / compare / thee to / a sum/mer's day?"

(I'll note that the unstressed syllable on "to" is an exception, but an accepted one within this meter. It's explicable, but too complex to go into here.)

But it's probably easy to confuse Shakespeare's use of meter with his use of language generally, and think that it's somehow linked to archaisms and worthy of panic.

Not so.

To illustrate, I bring to your attention the poetry of Banjo Patterson, a perfectly wonderful Australian poet whose work we read tonight at the dinner table. He's the guy who wrote the poem behind the movie, "The Man from Snowy River," and I thought I'd show you a sample from that poem and the poem "Mulga Bill's Bicycle." (The complete poems can be found at the links.)

First, from Mulga Bill's Bicycle (1896):

'Twas Mulga Bill, from Eaglehawk, that caught the cycling craze;
He turned away the good old horse that served him many days;
He dressed himself in cycling clothes, resplendent to be seen;
He hurried off to town and bought a shining new machine;
And as he wheeled it through the door, with air of lordly pride,
The grinning shop assistant said, "Excuse me, can you ride?"
This is basically perfect iambic heptameter - seven iambs to a line. And if you go and read the poem, it's not archaic or stilted. It's hilarious.

Next, iambic with a twist, from The Man from Snowy River (1890):

There was movement at the station, for the word had passed around
That the colt from old Regret had got away,
And had joined the wild bush horses — he was worth a thousand pound,
So all the cracks had gathered to the fray.
All the tried and noted riders from the stations near and far
Had mustered at the homestead overnight,
For the bushmen love hard riding where the wild bush horses are,
And the stock-horse snuffs the battle with delight.

This one alternates lines of seven and five feet, and does a really interesting extra thing as well - the first foot of all but two of the lines is an anapestic foot, like this:

x x X = one anapestic foot

I can't help but wonder if Banjo Patterson was thinking of horses galloping when he pulled that particular trick. It's marvelous stuff.

I hope you all get a chance to enjoy his work.


  1. I swear Juliette, you are getting me to read poetry. You have no idea what a miraculous achievement that is. ;-)

    From the second one,

    *** And the stock-horse snuffs the battle with delight.

    Methinks that old Banjo knew his Homer pretty well, or is it a (nod to a) quote from the Old Testament prophets?

  2. Yes, that's a biblical reference. The old war horse, sniffing the battle from afar, snorts and paws the ground.
    + + +

    Troche trips from long to short.
    From long to long in solemn sort
    Slow spondee stalks; strong foot! Yet ill able
    Ever to come up with dactyl trisyllable.
    Iambics march from short to long; --
    With a leap and a bound the swift anapests throng.
    -- Samuel Taylor Coleridge

  3. Your comment made me smile, pc. Thanks for pulling up that reference, Mike - and thanks again for putting up the Coleridge poem. Good stuff!

  4. Good post. :)

    Poetry is something that I will always read and love, but will never completely understand how to write well. I've come to accept this, and I'm okay with it. Really.

  5. Thanks so much, Ms. Sharp! I've been enjoying your blog, too.