Skip to comments.Homer, Shakespeare, Pope, and George Bush
Posted on 01/28/2005 6:27:22 PM PST by Congressman BillybobEdited on 01/28/2005 7:40:17 PM PST by Admin Moderator. [history]
Many commentators have noted that President Bushs Second Inaugural Address presented lofty themes, rather than plans for specific action in his second term. Some saw this as a virtue, that too little attention is paid to the long span of Americas civic life. Others saw this as over-reaching, and some objected especially to the many religious references in Bushs speech.
Theres an aspect here no one else has noticed. The speech is almost entirely in iambic pentameter, which is called blank verse when it does not rhyme. The entire output of William Shakespeare, the greatest wordsmith the English language has ever known, was in this meter.
So was the entire output of poet Alexander Pope. He is largely forgotten today, but many of his lines have entered our language. A little learning is a dangerous thing. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Hope springs eternal in the human breast.
Those authors, and the authors of the King James Bible, were using a powerful form of speech of ancient heritage. Homer wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey in the heroic measure, a ten-beat line from which iambic pentameter grew.
Assume that Bushs speech was iambic pentameter; well get to the proof in a moment. Why does this matter to readers and listeners today? Because this form of speech is more powerful than any other. Recall that Homers works were memorized, and then recited from memory for centuries, before they were ever reduced to writing. Only a form of speech written for the ear could survive that long with that clarity.
Here are two paragraphs from the Presidents Second Inaugural Speech, chosen at random by using the phone number I called repeatedly over two days seeking a response from the Presidents chief speech writer, Michael Gerson, about why this pattern appeared in the speech. The phone number ended with 2131, so here are the 21st and 31st paragraphs, displayed as blank verse:
Today, I also speak anew to my fellow citizens.
From all of you, I have asked patience
In the hard task of securing America,
Which you have granted in good measure.
Our country has accepted obligations that are
Difficult to fulfill and would be dishonorable to abandon.
Yet because we have acted in the great liberating tradition [of this nation],
Tens of millions have achieved their freedom.
And as hope kindles hope,
Millions more will find it.
By our efforts we have lit a fire
As well as a fire in the minds of men.
It warms those who feel its power,
It burns those who fight its progress.
And one day this fire of freedom
Will reach the darkest corners of our world.
The brackets in the seventh line above, and the fourth below, represent two of only nine times in this speech where a few words exceed the bounds of iambic pentameter.
The 31st paragraph reads as follows:
Self-government relies, in the end,
On the governing of the self.
That edifice of character is built in families
Supported by communities with standards, and sustained in our nation[al life]
By the truths of Sinai, the Sermon on the Mount,
The words of the Koran and the varied faiths of our people.
Americans move forward in every generation
By reaffirming all that is good and true
That came before ideals of justice and conduct
That are the same yesterday, today, and forever.
The entire speech parses the same way. This cannot be by accident. Either Mr. Gerson and others who wrote the speech immersed themselves deeply in the most powerful speeches from Americas past and naturally adopted the cadence of those, or they deliberately chose to write in iambic pentameter.
The early Presidents, including the four on Mount Rushmore, all were schooled in the classics, including Homer, Shakespeare, Pope and the King James Bible. This pattern of speech came naturally to them. From those sources, those men crafted their statements. The final paragraph of Lincolns Second Inaugural demonstrates why moments in Bushs speech sound both ancient and memorable:
With malice toward none, and with charity for all,
With firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,
Let us strive on to finish the work we are in,
To bind up the nations wounds,
To care for him who shall have born the battle
And for his widow and his orphan,
To do all which may achieve and cherish,
A just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
About the Author: John Armor is a constitutional lawyer in the Blue Ridge Mountains. His eighth book is on Thomas Paine, who also wrote in iambic pentameter.
To-DAY / I also SPEAK / a-NEW / to my FEL- / low CIT-i-zens.That, indeed would make the line a 5-footer . . . BUT . . . the underlying meter is lost because of the two feet containing 4 syllables in that line--in the second and fifth positions. Is there a name for those two critters? Since I'm at a loss for words when it comes to explaining such irregular feet . . . shoot! . . . I'm just gonna call that line a 7-footer and forget about it. So, if you think that Bush's speech is poetry . . . well . . . no offense meant, but there's nothing wrong with (perhaps) calling it prose poetry, is there? ;-)
Incredible insight! I think you're right - I'm going through it right now. A truly brilliant observation. Let us know if you hear from Gerson.
I would like to send your comments to some Spanish writers who have written on the Address, but I'll Freepmail you later to ask your consent.
Pope is an integral component of the diversity curriculum taught in high schools today.
" A little learning is a dang'rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
and drinking largely sobers us again."
From "A Little Learning", Alexander Pope 1688-1744
What is that remark supposed to mean?