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.
John / Billybob
Sounds Sherwin Cody'ish.
Great work on callingthis to our attention! It is an important characteristic of this speech.
Thank you for your contribution, as always.
"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promentory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death dimishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."
Thank you for calling this to note. I'd be interested in hearing from Bush, Gerson and anyone who might have intimate knowledge about this aspect of the speech.
I teach lit for a living, Billybob, and those lines don't scan out as iambic pantameter. Whoever taught you scansion did a poor job (no offense).
Modern prose doesn't do it very often, but the use of iambic and other rhythms in prose is fairly common in older prose. It was common in the great prose writers of the seventeenth century. I noticed a good bit of it in parts of Jane Eyre, which I was listening to on an MP3 disk a few weeks ago while commuting. And there are whole chapters in Moby Dick that are in iambic pentameter.
It's a commonplace that poetry is, and should be, more elevated than prose, an observation that goes back to Aristotle. When you are talking about elevated matters, it's natural to fall into rhythmic patterns and an elevated style.
You have to be careful not to do this sort of thing all the time, or it begins to sound artificial. But at the right moments, it's very effective.
Pope is forgotten? I will adjust to this, but it's going to ruin my evening. :(
Many commentators have noted that President Bushs Second Inaugural Address presented lofty themes, rather than plans for specific action in his second term
And if he'd offered "plans for specific action in his second term", they would of howled that he had no lofty themes.
With people like this there's no pleasing them.
All I can say is would you like some cheese to go with that whine?
Tell me how does it feel to be irrelevant?
There there..there there. It'll be alright, remember we're here for you.
"To-DAY,/ I AL-/ so SPEAK/ a-NEW/ to my FEL-/ low CIT-/ i-ZENS."That is how I'd scan the first line you posted from the 21st paragraph of Bush's speech. "Pentameter", it ain't! As you can see, there are 7 feet in that line--iamb, iamb, iamb, iamb, anapest, iamb, iamb--rather than 5. But, Billybob: If there's another way for scanning that line (and the others you posted), I'd be interested in seeing it (them). I'm always willing to learn. :-)
I even have a classic Donne poem-among others-posted on my old profile page.
If so, be so kind as to add me.
Bush does not belong in that list.
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?
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