‘Inversions of phrase’

(Thomas Hardy, 1899)

It being August, and some nights seeming unusually long, I was reminded of the short Thomas Hardy poem, ‘An August Midnight’, written at Max Gate in 1899.[1]

I 
A shaded lamp and a waving blind,
And the beat of a clock from a distant floor:
On this scene enter—winged, horned, and spined—
A longlegs, a moth, and a dumbledore;
While ’mid my page there idly stands
A sleepy fly, that rubs its hands… 

II 
Thus meet we five, in this still place,
At this point of time, at this point in space.
— My guests besmear my new-penned line,
Or bang at the lamp and fall supine.
“God’s humblest, they!” I muse. Yet why?
They know Earth-secrets that know not I.

Only twelve lines, seemingly simple enough, but not without interest. A small drama, which ‘this scene’ emphasises. Four indefinite articles in the first two lines – and one definite article, tied to the word ‘beat’, in the most strongly stressed line of the poem, because of those two strategic monosyllables, ‘beat’ and ‘clock’. ‘Dumbledore’ might momentarily trip up the Harry Potter generation; and commentators on the poem don’t always agree: is it a bumblebee or a cockchafer – or cockchafter? F. B. Pinion says bumblebee, Claire Tomalin says ‘a cockchafter or maybug’.[2]

(Cockchafer via http://www.newforestexplorersguide.co.uk/)

I pause on ‘Thus meet we five’, partly because of the implied equalising of the lives involved here, partly because of the inversion of natural word order and partly because of the number in this context. One of the mystic numbers, as Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable explains, the pentad ‘being the sum of 2 and 3, the first even and first odd compound. Unity is God alone, i.e. without creation. Two is diversity, and three (being 1 and 2) is the compound of unity and diversity, or the two principles in operation since creation, and representing all the powers of nature.’

The conjunctions of ‘still’ and ‘point’ (and time and space) prompt a forward glance to T. S. Eliot’s ‘Burnt Norton’: ‘At the still point of the turning world’ and:

Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.
I can only say, there we have been: but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.

‘I muse’ is another of these teasing touches, Hardy being his own muse, providing context, content, then text himself, from the materials in his immediate vicinity, the subjects of his poem entering the poet’s territory, the page, physically—‘My guests besmear my new-penned line’—as well as in the mind and memory. Tomalin comments on Hardy’s ‘appreciation that life is lived on different scales’, that the poem ‘shows him at his most tender, at ease in what still sometimes seemed to him to be God’s creation’.

The poem ends: ‘They know Earth-secrets that know not I.’ Pinion remarks that: ‘The inversion of the last line is perhaps an extreme example of the awkwardness and disregard for sound that Hardy sometimes accepted for the sake of verse pattern.’

Inversion: a change in order or position, a recurring theme in critical commentary, mainly but not always with reference to modern poets who, it’s implied, should know better or should, at least, reflect the habits of their own day. We expect to find it in Victorian poetry but not in modern poetry. Where—when—does the change come?

‘Poetry must be as well written as prose. Its language must be a fine language, departing in no way from speech save by a heightened intensity (i.e. simplicity)’, Ezra Pound wrote in January 1915, in a letter often cited, to Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry magazine. ‘There must be no book words, no periphrases, no inversions. It must be as simple as De Maupassant’s best prose, and as hard as Stendhal’s.’[3]

(Harriet Monroe, 1920)

Ford Madox Ford, whose ideas this letter largely repeated (as Pound himself subsequently acknowledged), had written in 1905 of how modern poets were barred from certain subjects by that dialect then accepted as the proper language for poetry. ‘We wait, in fact, for the poet who, in limpid words, with clear enunciation and without inverted phrases, shall give the mind of the time sincere frame and utterance.’[4] Twenty years on and Ford, in some ‘Notes for a Lecture on Vers Libre’, explained: ‘You see I hate—and I hated then—inversions of phrase. A line like A sensitive plant in a garden grew filled me with hot rage. If the chap wanted to say that a sensitive plant grew in a garden, why didn’t he say it—or if he could not find a rhyme for garden, let him for Heaven’s sake hold his peace.’[5]

Did Pound and Ford not use ‘inversions of phrase’ in their early poetry? Of course they did. But in the quest for both modernity itself and a definition of modernity which could separate your tribe from the others (and occasionally be brandished like a broadsword), word order—along with archaisms, ‘hath’, ‘thou’—was an early bone of contention (and remains so). Often, of course, the driving factor was the need for a rhymeword, until that need too fell away for many. And the First World War brought its own complications, the urgency and intensity of the subject matter sometimes crowding out concern with technique or ‘modernity’—besides, some of the soldier-poets died so young that they had little time to dwell on them.

Here’s Charles Sorley, probably in 1915 – he was killed by a sniper in October of that year at the Battle of Loos, aged twenty, and the manuscript of this poem was found by his father among Sorley’s personal effects:

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise.[6]

The inversions are probably not what you’d first notice there…


Ford ended, in Buckshee, with very free and colloquial verse:

We shall have to give up watering the land
Almost altogether.
The maize must go.
But the chilis and tomatoes may still have
A little water.

Pound, in some respects, circled round upon himself, his concerns, images – and diction, the earliest sometimes bleeding into the latest. Canto CX begins: ‘Thy quiet house’ and, a few lines on:

Hast’ou seen boat’s wake on sea-wall,
                        how crests it?

And some just kept going regardless, such as the prolific, popular and long-lived Walter de la Mare. His biographer noted that the critic Forrest Reid advised de la Mare to aim for simplicity of expression, however subtle the thought. ‘He thought this, with some justice, de la Mare’s greatest temptation, and condemned his inversions as a growing mannerism [ . . . ] De la Mare defended himself rather vaguely on the grounds that inversion either came off or it didn’t, and could not be defended or attacked on principle. He doubted anyway “whether ordinary talk is necessarily the best or most forcible or most attractive form of expression”’.[7]

(Walter de la Mare)

And yes, opening the book almost at random, de la Mare’s 1950 volume begins with ‘Here I sit, and glad am I’. There’s ‘The Changeling’: ‘Come in the dark did I’ and ‘Here’: ‘Forgave I everything’. Although I also catch sight of ‘Unwitting’:

This evening to my manuscript
Flitted a tiny fly;
At the wet ink sedately sipped,
Then seemed to put the matter by,
Mindless of him who wrote it, and
His scrutinizing eye –
That any consciousness indeed
Its actions could descry! . . .

Silence; and wavering candlelight;
Night; and a starless sky.[8]

Half a century apart, poets working late, their pages encroached upon by insect visitors.

Hardy’s last line doesn’t jar that much to me, probably because the inversion—as is not unusual—produces that flickering moment of uncertainty to offset it, as if, as well as the narrator not knowing those Earth-secrets, they don’t know him either.

First rule of poetic inversion: there’s no absolute rule.



Notes

[1] Thomas Hardy, The Complete Poems, edited by James Gibson (London: Macmillan, 1976), 113.

[2] F. B. Pinion, A Commentary on the Poems of Thomas Hardy (London: Macmillan, 1976), 51; Claire Tomalin, Thomas Hardy: The Time-Torn Man (London: Viking, 2006), 281.

[3] Ezra Pound, Selected Letters, 1907-1941, edited by D. D. Paige (New York: New Directions, 1971), 48-49.

[4] ‘A Literary Causerie: On Some Tendencies of Modern Verse’, Academy, 69 (23 September 1905), 982-984, reprinted in Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 28-32.

[5] Ford Madox Ford, ‘Notes for a Lecture on Vers Libre’ (1920s), in Critical Writings, edited by Frank MacShane (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964). The words quoted are from Shelley’s ‘The Sensitive Plant’.

[6] Charles Sorley, ‘[When you see millions of the mouthless dead]’, in Poetry of the First World War: An Anthology, edited by Tim Kendall (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 191.

[7] Theresa Whistler, The Life of Walter de la Mare: Imagination of the Heart (London: Duckworth, 2003), 323-324.

[8] Walter de la Mare, Collected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), 349-355.

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